When 'Beat' Takashi Kitano (the auteur behind international cult/arthouse hits like Sonatine and Violent Cop, also beloved for his work on Battle Royale) announced that he was going to direct and star in a revamped Zatoichi movie, expectations were understandably pretty high. Kitano's filmography is pretty solid stuff and he's quite talented both in front of and behind a camera. Further, the Zatoichi character has always been an enjoyable one - this all seemed like a great idea. The movie, however, has as many flaws as it does highlights.
The film follows a former samurai named Zatoichi (Takashi Kitano), now blind, who roams around the Japan of the nineteenth century making a living as a gambler and as a masseuse. As he travels around he winds up helping and old woman who puts him up. There he befriends her nephew and meets two sisters who work as geisha girls - Osei Naruto (Daigoro Tachibana) and Okinu Naruto (Yuuko Daike), one of whom is a transvestite. He learns that they were orphaned at a young age when the local Ginza mob murdered their parents. The gang still has a strong presence in the area, basically running a protection racket and extorting many of the locals. The more he learns about the problems in the area, the more frequent his interactions with the gang's foot soldiers become. This seemingly coincidental encounters always end the same way - they make an attempt on Zatoichi's life, and he slashes them down as fast as lightning thanks to his inimitable sword skills and quick reflexes.
As the encounters intensify, Zatoichi works his way closer and closer to the man in charge of the Ginza gang, eventually winding up on the radar of the boss' right hand man, a handsome and deadly samurai named Hattori (Tadanobu Asano of Ichi The Killer fame). All the while, the other boss' in the area move in on the territory with their own plans.
One thing you've got to give Kitano credit for is that he's not afraid to branch out and try new things. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't, but the man's films always have an aloofness to them despite their often times very grim subject matter that ensures that if nothing else, his pictures are interesting. He plays Zatoichi very well in this picture, looking just strange enough with his short, bleached blonde haircut and odd facial mannerisms to really work in the part. He moves his body with an interesting style that's both fluid and erratic and he is quite convincing in the scenes where he handles a sword. The fact that he is as good in the role as he is makes it all the more of a shame then that he doesn't get as much screen time as he should. Yes, the sidelines with the supporting characters are interesting in their own ways but not as interesting as watching Kitano play a blind swordsman and they simply serve to make us want to see more of him.
The cinematography in the picture is quite striking. The camera captures the swordplay very effectively and there are some very memorable shots of the aftermath that show off the carnage one lone sword can bring against many. The effects, however, are almost entirely rendered in CGI so where the samurai films that this picture pulls its inspiration from had these great, glorious geysers of arterial spray, here we wind up with what looks like the blood from a video game on screen. Some of these are so jarring that they take you out of the moment, As it is in many of Kitano's other films, the violence in Zatoichi is sporadic, intense, and it can sometimes come out of nowhere when you least expect it. This is a method he uses well throughout his work and when it's done properly it can be very effective and quite shocking. In this film, however, many of the scenes are rendered impotent by the poor digital effects work.
Neither a disaster or a masterpiece, Zatoichi has an enjoyable charm to it, and a wanton spirit of fun that permeates the film, culminating in a questionable song and dance number that feels like it was lifted from Stomp. It's an odd way to end a picture that is essentially, at its core at least, about revenge, but Kitano is an odd guy. There isn't really any rhyme or reason for this scene, but if nothing else it makes for an ending you won't forget.
Miramax presents Zatoichi in a 1080p AVC encoded 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that is a bit of a mixed bag. The colors on this transfer differ quite a bit from other international releases in that they're considerably brighter, which seems at odds with the more subdued color scheme evident in the Japanese release. Which color scheme looks better will obviously boil down to personal preference - if you've only seen the film via the R1 DVD release, you'll probably be fine with it, if you're used to watching it by way of one of the R2 or R3 releases, it'll look different to you. With that said, detail levels are pretty good, definitely better than the standard definition release, though some obvious edge enhancement shows up throughout the movie and this can be a little bit distracting. There also appears to have been some DVNR applied here and there. On the plus side, there aren't any compression artifact issues and black levels stay consistently good throughout.
If the inconsistencies in the transfer weren't cause for concern, the audio is. While a 48kHz DTS-HD 5.1 track has been included here, it's the English dub. The original Japanese track is included but only by way of a standard definition Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track - this is definitely a strike against the release, particularly because the English dub on this film is pretty bad. The quality and clarity of the DTS-HD track is up to snuff but the dubbing just isn't very good. The Japanese 5.1 track sounds just fine as it is but you can't help wishing that an HD audio option had been supplied. An alternate Spanish language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track is on board as are optional subtitles in English, Spanish and Arabic.
The extras that were found on Miramax's Region 1 DVD release are found on this Blu-ray release as well, though they're all presented in standard definition. The best of the bunch of a forty minute making of documentary that is presented here dubbed into English. There's some interesting on set footage here that gives us a look at what it was like working on the film in addition to some cast and crew bits and there's some legitimate substance here, making this more than a simple fluff piece.
Aside from that, there are four interviews - Cinematographer (6:58), Production Designer (5:40), Costume Supervisor (6:58), and Master Swordsman (4:25). These are moderately interesting though it should be said that the Japanese release contained longer versions of these same interviews in addition to four other interviews that haven't been included on this release.
Trailers/promos for a few other Miramax releases play before you get to the animated menu screen. Chapter stops are also included.
This disc is, like the film contained on it, a mixed bag. The video quality and coloring issues are going to put some off but the detail levels seem pretty decent and the clarity of the dubbed DTS-HD track is quite nice. The extras aren't all they could or should have been and there's no exclusive extra content to be found here. Those who were happy with the R1 DVD can consider this is decent upgrade but those of us who want to appreciate the picture in its native language can't help but find disappointment here. Rent it.