The movies, all starring Shintaro Katsu as the eponymous wandering masseur and gambler, represent Japanese genre filmmaking at its finest. Though popular, the original films, released between 1962 and 1973, are a bit less highly regarded in Japan than in America, where Japanese film scholars have been quicker to acknowledge their visual and aural virtuosity, to say nothing of Katsu's unforgettable characterization. Directed by such genre masters as Kenji Misumi, Kazuo (not Issei) Mori, Tokuzo Tanaka and, occasionally, offbeat outside talent like Satsuo Yamamoto and Kihachi Okamoto, and backed by outstanding cinematography and marrow-penetrating scores by composers as varied as Akira Ifukube and Isao Tomita, taken as a whole the Zatoichi series is one of the great epic stories of World Cinema.
At the center of things, naturally, is Shintaro Katsu, a fascinating figure who gradually took full control of the film series and later continued it on Japanese network television when the domestic film market could no longer support it or much of anything else. The series began at Daiei Studios but as that company teetered toward bankruptcy Katsu began producing them himself, under the aegis of his Katsu Productions. When Daiei finally succumbed he move the series to Toho for its last handful of entries, so today ownership of the films is divided between Toho and Kadokawa Pictures, inheritors of the Daiei film library. That Criterion was able to negotiate a licensing agreement for all 25 films into a single boxed set is an achievement all by itself. That the films can now be enjoyed sequentially in consistently gorgeous transfers is yet another.
The set comprises 25 feature films. They've been known under various titles through the years, but are, sequentially: The Tale of Zatoichi, The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (both 1962), New Tale of Zatoichi, Zatoichi the Fugitive, Zatoichi on the Road (all 1963), Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, Zatoichi's Flashing Sword, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, Adventures of Zatoichi (1964), Zatoichi's Revenge, Zatoichi and the Doomed Man, Zatoichi and the Chess Expert (1965), Zatoichi's Vengeance, Zatoichi's Pilgrimage (1966), Zatoichi's Cane Sword, Zatoichi the Outlaw, Zatoichi Challenged (1967), Zatoichi and the Fugitives, Samaritan Zatoichi (1968), Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival (1970), Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman (1971), Zatoichi at Large, Zatoichi in Desperation (1972), and Zatoichi's Conspiracy (1973).
Probably thanks to Katsu, the series is remarkably consistent, despite the use of directors and cinematographers with varying styles and interests, the fact that budgets went up and down and that the entire series moved from Daiei to Toho, the latter a studio not particularly known for thrilling chanbara.
Daiei, on the other hand, thrived on period swordplay films, packed as it was with stars, backlot sets and, at its Daiei-Kyoto headquarters, myriad nearby temples, shrines, and rural mountains and rivers a short caravan ride away. Japan's film industry in the early 1960s was besotted with ongoing film series, mostly chanbara. At Toho, for instance, there were salaryman comedy series like "Shacho" and the "In Front of the Station" and Crazy Cats films, along with the "Young Guy" musical romances of Yuzo Kayama. Daiei, meanwhile, had such popular series as the Nemuri Kyoshiro (aka The Sleepy Eyes of Death) films starring Raizo Ichikawa, while during Zatoichi's run Katsu busied himself with no less than two other ongoing concerns, the 15-film Akumyo series (1961-1974), and the nine-film Hoodlum Soldier series (1965-72).
Typically such series films were released at a rate of one every three-to-six months. They were very much in line with the kinds of movies similarly produced by Hollywood (Tarzan, Charlie Chan, Blondie, Hopalong Cassidy) during the ‘30s and ‘40s, before television took hold. In Japan television came later, and didn't really take off until the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, an event that compelled those holding off on buying a set to finally take the plunge. Over the next six years box-office figures plummeted, finally banishing even the indestructible Zatoichi to the TV tube.
Like their Hollywood progenitors, Japanese series like Zatoichi balanced the familiar with the unexpected. Superficially, if you've seen one Zatoichi film you've seen them all; the iconography rarely varied. There's always a gambling scene, for instance, where yakuza lowlifes target the blind masseur as an easy mark. They openly try to cheat him out of his gambling money until, that is, Zatoichi whips out his cane sword, shocking them by expertly slicing the dice or maybe a lit candle in two, and admonishing these thunderstruck thugs for their dishonest dealings.
Numerous other components appear in almost every film: the free-lance assassin hired by the villain, who typically makes his entrance halfway through the film, and who is usually Zatoichi's only serious rival. Frequently a blustering, physically-imposing boss offsets an outwardly charming but far more heinous corrupt government official. This boss often has an underling, clearly no match for Zatoichi, who can't stand the blind man, but who more often than not ends up with the humiliating job of looking after Zatoichi's personal needs. There's always a female lead, usually an unhappy but street-smart geisha looking to get out. She's often attracted to Zatoichi's moral purity and innate kindness, but a romantic-sexual relationship is never in the cards for this perpetual wanderer.
And then there's Zatoichi himself. Waddling along like a toddler with a load in his diapers, frequently stumbling off the edge of a broken footpath into knee-deep water or stubbing his bare toes on unanticipated rocks in the road, Zatoichi is the butt of everyone's jokes. Self-effacing, he's forever apologizing for his affliction but stops short of allowing others to call him a "blind bastard." His apparent helplessness is also the hook for his gambling, out-conning those who would cheat him, while roughnecks, unaware of his other greatly enhanced senses and swordplay skill, invariably underestimate his skill and cunning.
Like Kyoshi Atsumi's Tora-san, Zatoichi may be stuck at the very bottom of Edo Period Japan's rigid class (and caste) system, but he strictly follows a moral code that the rest of his criminal class does not. He has a pure heart and takes great delight in nature's simplest offerings, the gift of a warming summer sun, the smell of cherry blossom and even an ordinary bowl of white rice.
Audiences loved and continue to love watching these familiar scenes and characters play out even when there sometimes isn't much in the way of innovation. I had probably seen 20 or so of the 25 films prior to getting this set, but catching up on those that I had missed and revisiting several I hadn't seen in a while, I was surprised to discover they varied a lot more than I had remembered. Some are predominately lightweight programmers, heavy on Zatoichi's comic aspects while others are extremely dark and brooding, particularly the later ones.
The socio-political undercurrent of many of the films is particularly fascinating. Katsu, like many Japanese film stars specializing in yakuza roles, socialized with members of Japan's politically conservative criminal underworld, and Katsu himself was a very definition of a old-fashioned Japanese machismo. And yet the movies, while already in the general sense siding with the working poor, sometimes go several steps further than that, most famously in Japanese Communist Party filmmaker Satsuo Yamamoto's single Zatoichi entry, Zatoichi the Outlaw, the first film Katsu made under his Katsu Productions banner.
Even more surprising when one considers the jingoistic (and anti-Chinese in particular) Yakuza fan base, Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman is all about how language barriers between Japan and its most powerful neighbor can lead to tragic misunderstandings. And as Tony Rayns points out in the set's extra features, the series' depiction of Zatoichi's blindness in historically intolerant Japan is quite progressive and forward-thinking, this in a country that still lacks basic wheelchair access in most public places.
Video & Audio
Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman comes in beautifully designed packaging. Beginning late in its laserdisc period a lot of Criterion's packaging design has left this reviewer nonplussed, but this is a winner all the way and deserving of special praise. The movies themselves are found in a photo album-like booklet mostly grouped three to a disc, with many of the films averaging around 90 minutes in length. These new digital transfers were derived from "35mm prints" or "35mm low-contrast composite prints" but everything I looked at, from the first two black-and-white films to the later Daiei entries to those produced by Katsu Productions in association with Toho, all look splendid, with outstanding color, deep blacks, and extraordinarily impressive detail. Toho's domestic Blu-ray releases have generally been soft and disappointing, but the Toho-owned titles look as good as the Kadokawa-owned ones. Having first seen many of these films on VHS or via battered 16mm and 35mm prints, I envy those who will experience the series for the first time via this set. The mono audio (Japanese only, with optional English subtitles) were remastered at 24-bit, and for all the films (but apparently the first one especially) Criterion did a lot work cleaning up both sound and picture.
The set features a full-color hardcover booklet running nearly a hundred pages. It includes a long essay on the series by Geoffrey O'Brien, and notes on each film (along with a short list of credits) by Japanese film scholar Chris D. Accompanying each film is original artwork: I particularly like Yuko Shimizu's for Adventures of Zatoichi and Jhomar Soriano's for Zatoichi the Outlaw, but all are interesting, capturing the spirit of each entry. The other contributing artists are: Greg Ruth, Paul Pope, Scott Morse, Samuel Hiti, Josh Cochran, Evan Bryce, Ricardo Venâncio, Robert Goodin, Jorge Coelho, Vera Brosgol, Matt Kindt, Connor Willumsen, Patrick Leger, Jim Rugg, Angie Wang, Ming Doyle, Caitlin Kuhwald, Benjamin Marra, Bill Sienkiewicz, Andrew MacLean, Polly Guo, Barnaby Ward, and Victor Kerlow.
Also included is Kan Shimozawa's original short story, translated into English by Juliet Winters; notes about the transfers, and various acknowledgements. (There, as on the film itself, the 1970 Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo is strangely copyrighted 1965 by Toho. I guess they had a premonition.)
The best of the supplements is The Blind Swordsman, a nearly hour-long documentary by director John Nathan. Filmed in 1978, when Katsu was producing-writing-directing-starring in the third Zatoichi television series, the show keenly captures Katsu at his very best and worst. On set Katsu is like a man possessed, a Tasmanian Devil swirling frantically, attending to every last thing (usually in full costume), catching and improvising tiny little details, thinking through every emotion, wringing every last dramatic drop out of each shot, and, even acting out co-star Mitsuko Baisho's scenes for her at one point. "Yoi! Yoi! Yoi!" (the equivalent of "Ready! Camera!" prior to "Action!") he bellows impatiently, constantly pressuring his cast and crew to move even faster.
Conversely, the film also points to the Katsu as volatile star, making a "peace sign" gesture to his tsukibito (personal assistants), angry when a (lit and ready to be smoked) cigarette isn't instantly thrust between his fingers. A Katsu who rents out a snack bar for the night to flirt with Baisho and boogie to Steve Wonder's "Superstition"; who, drunk on his ass, reflects upon having punched a taxi driver's lights out (a misunderstanding, it turns out), and who at one point walks straight into a wall. This is the Katsu months away from being hired and just as quickly fired as the star of Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha (1980) and, watching Nathan's film, there's no doubt why this partnership was doomed from the start. An enlightening new interview paired with the show has director Nathan reflecting on his amazing relationship with Katsu.
A discussion with Tony Rayns is likewise enlightening, and I was glad to see him make just comparisons between Zatoichi and Tora-san, whose own 48-film series (1969-1993) shares many elements (similarly disreputable wanderer, always an outsider, pure heart, selflessly helps others, etc.). I do take issue with Rayns assertion that Zatoichi was the most successful Japanese film series of the 1960s. That honor belongs to Toei's Abashiri Prison films starring Ken Takakura.
Trailers for all 25 films are collected on the same final disc that includes The Blind Swordsman and the Rayns interview. I would have preferred them attached with each film, but obviously Criterion wanted to maximize the bit-rate there, so this is a perfectly reasonable compromise.
One of 2013's best Blu-ray releases, Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman is a DVD Talk Collector Series Title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.