Between 1962 and 1974 there were 25 Zatoichi films made. A final, sort of anniversary, revisionist Zatoichi film was made in 1989. Add to that a successful television series, and , obviously, with that many hours of entertainment devoted to one character, what was created was nothing less than a beloved cultural icon.
The Tale of Zatoichi (aka. The Life and Opinion of Masseur Ichi, 1962): Blind masseur and swordsman Ichi, makes his way to the home of a high profile gangster, Sukejoro, whom he casually befriended a year before. Taking up Sukejoro on his offer for a place to stay, Zatoichi finds that the gangster is in a war with a rival gang boss, Shigezo, in the next town over. Sukejoro, whose gang outnumbers his enemy, discovers that Shigezo has hired a well known, dangerous samurai to aide him, so Sukejoro hopes that he can get Zatoichi to lend his swordsmanship and help his gang. But, Zatoichi has little interest in the warring towns, and is instead content to gamble and fish his days away until he wears out his welcome. And, it is while fishing that he meets Hirate, the rival swordsman Shigezo hired. Since neither has very much interest in their prospective bosses war and they share a similar code of honor, the two samurai strike up a friendship. Through his keen senses Zatoichi also notices that Hirate is ill, and it is this malady that, eventually, makes Hirate bedridden. When Sukejoro finds out his rivals swordsman is out of commission, and he doesn't need to rely on the troublesome Zatoichi, Sukejoro strikes. But, Hirate hears of the attack and knows that because of his absence Shigezo plans to use a rifle to shoot Zatoichi. Fearing his comrade will be in the attacking force, he convinces Shigezo to abandon the gun and joins the fray, all along, in pure respect, intending to battle against the notorious blind swordsman.
The first image we see of Zatoichi, is the blind man walking alongside a small creek. With his cane he feels the ground and discovers that a log bridges over the water, and he gets on all fours and slowly crawls across the log to the other side. It is a telling image, on one hand showing he is disabled yet determined, a combination that is triumphant but still precarious... From the outset of this first film, Zatoichi's appeal is easy to see. The character is well defined, thoroughly fleshed out. He is so many things- a scoundrel, a ladies man, a confident risk taker, impudent, yet sympathetic and completely vulnerable. Shintaro Katsu's performance is note perfect, creating a man of weakness and strengths.
From the beginning, the Zatoichi formula is simple: take the enigmatic character, throw him in with some gangsters/roughnecks, add a subplot involving the commoners he encounters, and do it with equal elements of melodrama and black humor, with sporadic bits of seriousness, action, and even sometimes romance, depending on the tale. As with any film series, be it James Bond or Friday the 13th, the formula would sometimes fail and breed a lesser film, but more often than not, with Zatoichi it would work and spawn wonderfully realized stories. It would see a decline and even change studios (from Diaei to Toho), but its final years still managed imaginative variations and innovation to keep itself alive. Such as- The more comedic turn uniting two of Samurai cinemas biggest icons in 1970's Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, and the Chinese swordplay/samurai hybrid of 1971's Blind Swordsman Meets His Equal, or such plots as Zatoichi's Cane Sword, the 15th film, where after killing countless men, Ichi finds out his beloved sword may only have one blow left before it will break, so he spends the film trying to avoid conflict.
In the first scene, Ichi enters a gangsters dice game, the room full of lowlifes thinking they can cheat a blind man. In this one scene we see his brusque confidence, his skill, and that he is not a man to be fooled and get the sense that he is not to be trifled with. The blind man cons the entire group, and instantly he is a lovable scab. And, we know no matter how outnumbered or deadly his enemy, (just like Dirty Harry) Zatoichi will survive, but his character is so lovable and sympathetic, it automatically generates concern and tension for him when he gets into a dire situation. The subplot this time out involves a girl named Tane, who is being forced into a relationship she doesn't want, and the blind swordsman offers casual support, which leads her to fall for him. But, the main story is the bond between Zatoichi and Hirate. After a great action melee of clashing gangsters through the towns streets, it is a testament to the power of the filmmaking, that although the outcome of Zatoichi and Hriate's battle finale is obvious (after all it is the Zatoichi film series not the Hirate films series), yet the film succeeds in making the predicable surprisingly poignant and touching, just by means of simple direction and excellent acting.
The DVD: Home Vision Entertainment embarks on, what they claim to be the beginning of releasing the first 14 Zatoichi films on DVD. Although bearing the boast of digitally remastered, it is just that- less a restoration effort, and basically just a good digital transfer of a fairly good Zatoichi film print. Also, barebones, without even a trailer, but with the sheer volume of titles coming, one expects they are trying to keep it simple and economical for the Zatoichi fanatic.
Picture- Letterboxed 2:35:1. B&W. Well, as with a lot of older films, one shouldn't be surprised if absolutely perfect elements cannot be found. The Tale of Zatoichi has some wear, most notably weak and uneven contrast that goes from okay, to too bright, to too dark, depending on the scene. There is also the occasional picture jitter common with older films, and technically there is some slight shimmer and edge enhancement that may catch your eye but isn't terribly distracting. The sharpness is very good and the print is relatively spot, line, and dirt free, and has far less grain then the Zatoichi prints I've seen before. It should be more than acceptable for film fans; its just not absolute perfection.
Sound- Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 Monoaural, with optional white English subtitles that are displayed within the bottom of the letterbox frame. Nice, some occasional crackle and pop in the background, but remains true to the original DIAEI Studio presentation.
Extras- Nice liner notes, and surprisingly, inside the case a sheet of 4 'Zatoichi Trading Cards', that were a neat touch--- 19 Chapters--- Photo Gallery, basically just 10 film stills, no promo or posters or anything.
Conclusion: So, it is not the absolute best that Zatoichi could look, but it is a more than fair presentation and accordingly priced. With so many Zatoichi films and dedicated but fairly small audience, I guess its fair not to expect a full scale Criterion-like restoration effort. If you are a Zatoichi fan, a fan of samurai/classic Japanese cinema, go out buy it. Thankfully, there are even more to come.