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 The Blind Swordsman aka. Zatoichi Monogatari (1974)? Obviously, what that amounts to is a very endearing character. Click here for a review of the first volume.
Volume Two of Media Blasters release of Zatoichi Monogatari contains the following episodes:
Episode 6 ‟Pouring Rain‟- Ichi runs into a woman named Osei who holds a grudge against him. The prostitute/pickpocket has it in for Ichi because he killed her brother during a gambling game. Her brother had turned into a gambling cheat because he was trying to buy Osei out of prostitution. Ichi endeavors to defend her from the gangsters that are hassling her and explains to her how his life has him constantly on edge. He even gives his cane sword to her in penance, which complicates things when people are after his head.
Episode 7 ‟A Bird Lands on Ichi‟- Special guest star Yujiro Ishihara's (Ambush at Blood Pass) plays a samurai named Hanpei Misawa the assigned protector of some hunting grounds, a suitable job for him because he has a special affinity for nature and birds. Ichi is hired to help a gang in their turf war, but when the two sides decide to fight on the hunting grounds, Ichi aides Hanpei in dissolving the fight. Ichi picks up a tagalong in a young farmer named Gosuke, who wants Ichi to teach him how to be a gangster. Gosuke finds out the hard way just how cruel gangsters can be when the begrudging gang, who wants to take over the hunting grounds, kidnaps Gosuke's family in order to lure Ichi and Hanpei into a fight.
Episode 8 ‟An Unforgettable Flower‟- Ichi rescues a distraught woman named Okiku from killing herself. Having been sold into prostitution by a scurrilous man, she has decided death is better than a life of being indebted to a brothel. Ichi takes her away, and her embittered shell slowly crumbles under his kindness. The two make ends meet and find work (Okiku plays music, Ichi with massages) in a small town. Tragically, Okiku just cannot get away from the sordid criminal's that feel they posses her. Their calm days together are short-lived and Ichi is forced to fight.
Episode 9 ‟The Two Zatoichi's‟- Ichi enters a town where he is surprised to hear he has already arrived. It turns out an old friend Kobuichi has entered into a scam with a femme fatale named Okei. The two show up in a town and convince the local gangsters that Kobuichi is the feared Zatoichi. The gangs give them a place to stay, pampering, and cash in return for "Zatoichi's" good favor. Ichi tries to warn his dim and bewitched friend of the dangers he faces and Okei's devilshness but it is to no avail. When Okei decides to ditch her scam and Kobuichi in favor of staying with the local boss, she convinces the boss to kill off Kobuichi/Zatoichi to show his power to his rivals. Needless to say, no one knows that the real Zatoichi is actually amongst their midst, and he will have to come to the rescue of his old friend.
It is great round of episodes, including one that may well be one of the greatest Ichi stories- period. Over the course of reviewing the majority of the films, even though the series always followed a strict formula pattern, I'm amazed at how many times I've said that, just how many great stories they managed to tell. Shintaro Katsu is just one of those blessed actors with an unlimited amount of charisma. No matter how many times he played Ichi, every performance has nuance, charm, and energy.
The first two episodes in this collection are rather serviceable entries. ‟An Unforgettable Flower‟ is simply a stunner. It has a great deal of heart and a well-written, evolving relationship is formed over the course of its brief 48 min running time. The end had me teary eyed. And, of course, being Zatoichi, it isn't all heartbreak and violence. There is a good deal of levity, most notably in ‟The Two Zatoichi's where his bumbling friend gets a lot of comic mileage. Hey, what more do you want? You get a little bit of everything, some action, some comedy, some drama, and one of the greatest screen characters to pop up on film and television.
The DVD: Media Blasters- Tokyo Shock
Picture: Full-screen, Standard. Like the first volume, this one comes with a word of warning about the age of the elements. While the first volumes eps appeared in slightly better shape, some of these have a few more marks of wear and tear and age. But, it is nothing more than the matter of a high grain level, some color fade, and some dirt and specks, none of which is uncommon or out of line with a 30 year old material from Japanese televison.
Sound: Dolby 2.0 Mono. Again, like I said above (and throughout every Zatoichi release), considering the age and nature of the materials, the presentation is fine. Luckily, Father Time hasn't plagued the soundtrack with too many instances of severe hiss or distracting distortion, and Katsu's theme song vocals remain warm and inviting. The subtitles are good too, well-timed and accurate.
Extras: Nothin', just some Media Blasters release trailers.
Conclusion: Again, a great release and Ichi/samurai film fans should be thanking the heavens. Considering the materials limitations, the transfers are quite good, about the best one could expect. The only perplexing thing about the release is why it goes from five episodes on Vol. 1, to four episodes for Vol. 2. I have no idea how the series originally played, I just know that it was some 100 episodes total. Anyway, at the very least, since there is less content, Media Blasters should have offered Vol. Two at a lesser retail price. Still, for fans, a great purchase.