Zatoichi, the blind masseur, gambler, and scamp swordsman, is obviously beloved. How else to you explain that after a over a decades worth of films (26 total), being shuffled to another studio, and in the face of waning box office receipts, Shintaro Katsu and his signature character moved onto tv screens for 100 episodes of Zatoichi Monogatari? Obviously, what that amounts to is a very endearing character. And Media Blasters has decided to delve into the world of Zatoichi Monogatari with this release of five episodes and at least two more confirmed voumes planned for early 2006.
Episode One: "A Challenge of Chance". Ichi, forever moving, forever traveling, is making his way to the mining town of Ashio. Along the way he shares a drink with a fellow traveler, Tatsudo, who plays coy and secretive with his occupation and business in the town. Turns out, gangsters have taken over the copper mine and Tatsudo is there to aide the daughter of a friend who's seen the family business squashed by the gangsters muscling in and terrifying the workers.
Episode Two: "The Flower that Bloomed with the Lullaby". Ichi befriends a little ragamuffin who, since the death of his mother, has to provide for his bedridden grandfather. Ichi gambles and wins big, collecting from the already financially stricken local gangsters. The boy's grandfather dies, but not before entrusting Ichi with the name of the boy's next of kin, a wealthy silk dealer who intends to make the boy his heir. The gangsters get wind, especially an eloping couple of a low level henchman and his prostitute fiancee, and soon they are trying to take the boy away and collect the reward on their own.
Episode Three: "A Memorial Day and the Bell of Life". When they are attacked by hired thugs, Ichi defends two clients, an older woman whose smell reminds him of his mother and her son. The gangsters who employed the thugs end up tussling with Ichi the next day, and he makes no attempt to defend himself. He is saved from being drowned in the river by a swordsman, Monji, an enthusiastic guy who knows of Ichi and ends up following the masseur around, pestering him for the rest of the day. It seems this is the one day a year Ichi has vowed not to draw his sword, the anniversary of his mother's death. However, one of the thugs Ichi killed had a daughter, and Monji may have to trick Ichi into thinking his day of no swordplay is over before it really is.
Episode Four: "The Kannon Statue that was Tied". Ichi arrives in a small town where two gangs full of under skilled henchmen are currently fighting over the placement of a statue that ensures high traffic for the gambling parlors and brothels come festival time. The local officer is on the take and receives bribes from both sides. Ichi helps out a singer who was recently released form prison, looking for the daughter she gave birth to shortly before her incarceration. After the officer plants hired goons in each gangster family, effectively attacking them from within, Ichi's hand is forced to deal with the unscrupulous cop.
Episode Five: "The Heartless Man, Touched by Compassion". Ichi arrives in a outpost town and immediately bails out a little kid's drunken father who has amassed a large number of gambling debts. The drunken father is left with little option other than to sell his beautiful daughter to the gangsters, who will turn her out as a prostitute. Ichi puts his gambling skills to work and makes the money to pay the man's debts and keep his daughter from being sold. Ichi also befriends a samurai, Murakami, and his blind sister. Murakami is a deadly swordsman, hiring out his blade skills to local gangsters in order to pay for an operation that will give his sister back her sight. When the gangsters want Murakami to take out Ichi, and hold his sister hostage in order to ensure his compliance, Murakami is forced to take on Ichi.
The Zatoichi series, both films and tv, was very formulaic. Just look at episodes 4&5, both using the setup of two sides of warring gangsters, or 2&5 with their little street urchins that Ichi helps out. But, the formula works, even in repetition, and it is no different than the re-use of themes where a certain template is followed in a western, a spy film, a film noir, or a detective/crime tv show. It is all about character, and Ichi is a lovable character. The closest American tv character I could compare him to would be Columbo. Both are average Joe looking, appear to be befuddled, unassuming, yet underneath posses unparalleled skills, cleverness, and deep empathy.
The transition to television was a very good one for Zatoichi. The lower production budget does not show a great deal and the direction is still relatively dynamic and keeps to a cinema feel. The episodes just play like shorter versions of the Zatoichi films. Particularly the last three episodes really find the show clicking. Episode three has a great comedic sequence with Ichi and Monji devouring food at a small eatery and ends with Monji confronting a gangster who is revealed to be a poser who only knows how to act tough. The last two episodes also increase the action quotient a little and have some good face offs. They even have some limb chopping, proving once again, the Japanese standards and practices are amazing because they know your standard primetime viewer can take a some action with severed body parts. The shorter running time ensures that the shows all move at a good pace, but not so fast that they sacrifce any character or drama. As a matter of fact, episodes four an five rival any of the Zatoichi films when it comes to heartbreaking moments.
The DVD: Media Blasters-Tokyo Shock.
"This feature has been transferred from the original 1974 elements. Due to the age of the materials some imperfections do exist."
Picture: Full-Screen, Standard. Now, Media Blasters was kind enough to preface every episode with a warning (see above) about the age and wear and tear on the transfer. Over the years, any clip or still that I saw from the tv series looked pretty poor, so I expected as much. Surprisingly, I think they didn't really need the warning. To me, the episodes looked rather good. Yeah, they look old because... well, they are. So, they may be a little spotty with dirt damage here and there, but overall it is a pretty good job considering the elements are from a 30+ year old Japanese television show.
Sound: 2 channel, Japanese language with optional English subtitles. Same as the above, really. Yeah, it shows some age and mix limitations, but the distortion and wear is minimal. The dialogue recording has an occasional weak bit, like a scene where keen listeners will note the sound of highway traffic in the background. But mostly the dialogue and fx are nice and clear, as well as the great Spaghetti Western-ish soundtrack. The subtitles appear to be quite good with only minor quibbles with some of the translations.
Extras: Nothin'... just some Media Blasters release trailers.
Conclusion: As a samurai film fan, a Zatoichi fan, I'm very pleased that Media Blasters has picked up the tv series. I'm crossing my fingers that these discs continue and pray just a little more that they might pick up other shows like Sonny Chiba's Shadow Warriors. Considering the series age, the transfers are quite good, and while there are no extras, who's complaining when you've got five 45 minute episodes worth of solid entertainment featuring an amazing actor and a timeless, treasured Japanese character? Certainly not me.