Between 1962 and 1974 there were 25 Zatoichi films made. A final, sort of anniversary, updated 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 The Outlaw (1967) is the sixteenth film in the Zatoichi series.
This time Ichi wanders into a area where a curious war is being raged between two gambling houses and the local farmers. Many of the farmers have formed a collective of sorts, lead by the philosophic teachings of a former samurai named Ohara who guides them in giving up drink and gambling and focusing on their crops and nature. While one gambling house kidnaps farmers who owe debts, another gambling house lead by a kinder boss, Asagoro, bails them out. The stricter house tries to use Ichi as a means of threatening Asagoro, but Ichi, liking Asagoro's kindness to the peasants, aides him and goes on the run as the two mob houses begin to fight. But, in the months that follow, Ichi learns of Asagoro's rise to power and how the seemingly kind boss begins to scheme to have Ohara thrown in jail and the farmers back to their old lecherous ways.
This film has one of the better plots in the series, the almost hippie ex-samurai's teaching posing as a threat to the gangsters who prefer the villagers to lead debauched lives. Unfortunately some of the storytelling is sloppy, particularly the side-plot characters who Ichi becomes involved with. Their introductions and back story were told so quickly and incidentally, that when their stories began to get a third act wrap up, I had trouble recalling who they were in the first place.
But, while it lacks some innovation, Ichi's appeal remains true. Near the films middle he skewers a moth with a toothpick and makes the threatening remark about how he has no guilt over disposing of such "unwanted souls." And, when he learns of Asagoro's cruel rise to power, it stings because he trusted the man and now Asagoro has become another unwanted soul Ichi will slice his way through dozens of henchmen to get to. And, like any series, be it spy film or western, there are ones that set the standard, some that innovate, and some that just deliver the basic goods. The latter is the case here; it is a fair film, not able to live up to the standards of some of the previous films in the series, but obviously game enough to ensure there would be many more to follow.
The DVD: Animeigo
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Home Vision holds the rights to the bulk of the Zatoichi catalog and, with solid clean prints and attractive packaging, they have set the bar high for Animeigo and their handful of Zatoichi titles. But, Animeigo are clearly up for the task presenting great 35mm prints that have been run through a cleanup process that has left them looking fantastic.
While the Home Vison prints (which I must stress are still very fine transfers) have occasional print wear and tear and some unevenness, Animeigo's transfers are much cleaner and well-balanced. Considering the films age, the level of grain looks good and sharpness details are crisp. The color details are not exactly vivid but still present healthy flesh tones. Contrast is nice and deep, and considering the high number of low lit interiors and night shots in the film, there are not many instances of grayed contrast or lost details.
Sound: Dolby Mono/Stereo. Japanese language with optional English subtitles. The box cover has the film listed as basic two channel stereo, though it doesn't sound to my ears like a stereo remixing of the original mono source. That is, I think the mono track was just panned out into the right and left speakers, which does pump it up from a direct center mix, but isn't true stereo. Or maybe the mix was so subtle I couldn't tell, regardless it is a good audio presentation. Although it can often be the case with these older films, one doesn't have to worry about a hollow, tinny, scratchy audio track. Zero distortion, clean and pure from the vocals to the Toho score.
The disc has two subtitle options, one that presents the dialogue and definitions of some Japanese phrases and terms, the other just the definitions.
Extras: Chapter Selections— Trailers for Zatoichi The Outlaw, Zatoichi and the Festival of Fire and Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance— Character Bios and Liner Notes. When it comes to liner notes, Animeigo does it right, providing a insert as well as on disc text about various terms, historical, data, film info, and a Shintaro Katsu bio.
Conclusion: A fair Zatoichi film with a great transfer. Home Vision set the bar with their previous releases, but Animeigo manages to surpass their transfers in terms of picture and sound quality, though you don't get a nifty reproduction poster.