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, in 1974, Shintaro Katsu and his signature character moved onto tv screens for nearly 100 episodes of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman aka. Zatoichi Monogatari. Obviously, what that amounts to is a very endearing character.
Reviews of volumes One, Two, Three, Four, and Five.
Episode 22: "Song of the Father and Son". Ichi meets a kid named Sennosuke, who helps Ichi get a room in a town busy and crowded because of a fair. Sennosuke is ashamed of his father, a former constable now working as a strong-arm for the local gang. The gangs leader, Boss Genzo, gives the innkeeper a loan and convinces the innkeeper to use his inn and daughter as collateral. Using a loophole in their agreement (basically, not being home at the time the innkeeper is supposed to repay his debt), Genzo snatches away everything the poor man holds dear which forces him to commit suicide. Ichi must gamble and fight to win the girls freedom, and, in the end, Sennosuke's father also has to decide his true allegiance- to his employer or to what is morally right.
Episode 23: "Suicide Song of Lovers". In this pretty dour, doomed romance episode, Sawa is a blind shamizen player who travels with her sister and would-be lover Sahachi. Sawa has been ostracized for having an affair with Sahachi, who was the son of her benefactor. Now the trio travels trying to make a living while bearing the mark of dishonor.* To make matter worse, they are also being trailed by a swordsman with ill-intentions. Ichi sticks to the shadows in this episode but the snowbound locations and excellent bleak storyline make it well worth your time.
*You'll have to forgive me if I'm a little vague about the whole shamizen player etiquette/cultural rules. I could have used some liner notes for this one to understand the whole "lone shamizen" scorning. I did half-heartedly try a few Google searches to no avail. If anyone can provide any insight, email me.
Episode 24: "The Coming of Spring". Omitsu Naruyima is the spoiled daughter of a wealthy silk merchant. Omitsu travels with a group of chaperones to a temple to pray for her fathers health. One of her subordinates tells her one of her nannies/childhood servants is in her waning days living in a nearby village, and Omitsu insists that they visit her, but the escorts warn that it is too dangerous. Omitsu, stubborn and naive in the ways of commoners, takes off on her own and gets Ichi as a protector/guide. But, it ends up that a gang has been tailing her, waiting for an oppotunity to kidnap her and demand a ransom. After Omitsu is taken away by a slick conwoman looking to sell the insolent silk heir to the gangsters, Ichi must come to the rescue.
Episode 25: "Way of the Yakuza". Lifelong friends Ginpei and Shinza are the remaining two members of the Shouten family. Their gang has been left in tatters after Ichi killed their leader so the two swear revenge. Once their mission is over, Shinza is also looking forward to marrying Ginpei's sister, Osode. When they do find Ichi, he tries to talk them out of a fight, mainly by pointing out that their leader was a scumbag, but the two will not budge in their sense of honor. The local gangs in the area have caught wind of the twosomes plan at redeeming Shouten's name, and they want to put a stop to it so they can proceed with gobbling up the defunct gangs territory.
Episode 26: "Traveling Alone". As a season finale, you cannot ask for anything better. Ichi returns to his birthplace, Haboto village where he reacquaints himself with the scrappy local priest, whose taste for puffer fish has given him some light, comic poisoning. The priest encourages Ichi to lay down his sword, the symbolic source of his problems. The two bury his deadly cane on the temple grounds and Ichi tries to live the life of a priest. Ichi's past just wont fade away, especially with so many enemies and a bounty on his head. Groups of yakuza and a lone opportunistic swordsman arrive to take Ichi's head. The yakuza hassle the townsfolk to give Ichi up. The swordsman refuses to fight Ichi until he picks up his cane again. And, one can be assured the masseur does pick up his cane and go back to his old ways, otherwise there wouldn't be two more seasons.
In this day and age, most tv series aim at some kind of growth, be it in character or storyline. It probably has something to do with modern hustle and bustle, a need to feel you're going somewhere, otherwise why waste your time? Zatoichi harkens back to a time when it was less about development and more about preservation, you tuned in because you knew what Zatoichi would be doing from week to week, season to season, like a friend you can always rely on being punctual. And, while this is my first exposure to the tv series, I somehow doubt no matter how predictable and tired the story/character might get by the end of its run, this is not the kind of show where they add a monkey, baby, baby monkey, impish kiddie cousin, sidkick, etc. to the cast.
This is a good run of episodes. "Suicide Song of Lovers" and "Way of the Yakuza" are solid entries with moving storylines and good characters for Ichi to interact with. Zatoichi takes a backseat a bit in "Song of the Father and Son" and its dry storyline and bland child actor lead make it the least of this bunch. I really enjoyed "The Coming of Spring" and "Traveling Alone" (directed by the great Kenji Misumi) because they accomplish a good mix of characters for Ichi to play off as well as cement the values and moral struggles that Ichi deals with and define him as a character.
The DVD: Media Blasters.
Again, Media Blasters are kind enough to offer a disclaimer about the source material. Honestly, I think it is unneeded. For a 30 year old Japanese tv show, qualitywise, I think any sensible viewer gets exactly what one expects.
Picture: Full-screen. Standard. The source shows its age, most notably in the color and grain department and an occasional bit of spottiness. But really, like the other volumes, it looks perfectly fine.
Sound: Mono, Japanese with optional English subtitles. Again, the source has its age and era limitations, but the presetnation is perfectly acceptable with few external problems like severe distortion or hiss. The subs are well-done and, aside from a "seeya" or two, the translation didn't have as many colloquialisms as past volumes.
Extras: Nothin', just some Media Blasters trailers.
Conclusion: With this release Media Blasters has successfully made it a fourth of the way into the tv series by releasing the first year run of shows. For US chambara fans, it has surely been a great pleasure to finally have this great series legitimately available in the States. Hopefully, these releases will continue.