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. Set in the age of rouge samurai, Shintaro Katsu stars as Ichi, a blind masseur, gambler, a gangster, lady charmer, and deadly swordsman... Zatoichi: On the Road (1963 aka. Zatoichi's Fighting Journey, Zatoichi and the Scoundrels) is the fifth film in the series. Click on the following links for reviews of the previous films: The Tale of Zatoichi, Tale of Zatoichi Continues, New Tale of Zatoichi, and The Fugitive.
Ichi finds himself being wooed by the Doyama gang, who want to enlist his services for an upcoming fight with their rivals. While on the way to meet their boss, Ichi is sidetracked when he is attacked and his escort killed, and then later in the same night, he runs across a dying man in the woods. With his last breath, the mortally wounded man asks Ichi to protect a girl, Mitsu, and Ichi cannot refuse such a request. Mitsu is the daughter of a wealthy family and wanted by a gang because she spurned their bosses advances and stuck him in the face with a hairpin. Once again, Ichi finds himself in the midst of enemies, the Doyama rivals who want him dead and the men combing the countryside for Mitsu. As Ichi tries to get her back to her family and Mitsu's affection for the scoundrel masseur grows, he must rescue her from various enemies, those out to wrong him, those wanting the reward for Mitsu's return, and those wanting to kill her. Eventually it leads to Ichi being in the middle of a massive fight between two rival gangs, both of which would like to see him dead but still want his sword skills on their side.
The fifth film in the series and proof of how fresh and delightful the character could continue to be for many films to come. A fantastic, layered plot unfolds, culminating in a memorable finale. On the Road also marks the first signs of a little more darkness and brutality. While Zatoichi would often want to avoid conflict and would be humbled and embarrassed towards any regard for his sword skills, this marks one of the first times he openly flexes his muscle and reputation. When Mitsu is taken away from him and subsequently ends up in the hands of a rough travel cart service gang, Ichi walks into their midst and throws his weight around intimidating the men into giving her back (but also making new enemies in the process). His keen senses (his Spidey-sense) are also a bit heightened, he is able to traverse a room full of carts, throws a sake bottle up in the air and catches it with his pipe. But, we still continue to see his winning charm, his amiable nature, most notably in two quiet scenes with Mitsu, one while eating a sour persimmon, the other when he sloppily gobbling down some rice balls by a riverside and they discuss how, despite the tense circumstances, they are glad to have met one another.
Zatoichi is a great example of how you really make action work. While some may want to watch some explosion, techno gadget filled loud modern action film, for me, the quick simple action in a Zatoichi film is far more effective, a merger of style and character like a Leone Western, both feeding the other. I find more delight in watching Ichi fell several opponents with one blow because he is such a rich character, as opposed to the stone-faced antics of Ah-nold and such blowing away faceless armies with machine guns. Basically, the entire Zatoichi franchise were just crowd pleasers, pulp films, but it is amazing (and sad) that as time goes by they show a degree of artistry and subtlety the mass appeal pulp films of today rarely match.
The DVD: Home Vision Entertainment
Picture: Letterboxed, 2.35:1, Anamorphic. Once again a nice print. Fans should be very happy, but there are some blemishes, age wear like lines and dirt, but well within the norm for a film of its age. Probably a scant bit rougher than the previous two Zatoichi releases, but still a great find for fans of the genre.
Sound: Japanese Dolby Digital mono with optional white English subtitles. Due to the era, you obviously won't be getting the most dynamic sound with a large range. As it is, the audio is fine, free of any glaring or troublesome distortions. The subtitle translation is great
Extras: 17 Chapters--- Gallery--- Liner Notes--- Zatoichi trading cards.
Conclusion: Home Vision continues their track record of great Zatoichi releases. Though it is pretty barebones, considering the number of Zatoichi films, it is understandable why each one doesn't get an extra packed edition. Still, it is a nice print at an affordable price. Chambara fans should be very pleased, and anyone interested in Japanese Samurai Cinema should covet these releases.