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Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman, Vol. 17 - Zatoichi Challenged
While staying at an inn, Ichi shares a room with a sick woman and her child, Ryota. The woman dies, and Ichi takes it upon himself to escort the child to his father, Shokichi. While en route, they get a ride from a traveling troupe led by a pretty singer, Miss Tomoe. The group frequents the area and are the guests of a local boss, Boss Sobei. As soon as they arrive, a rival group of thugs from another boss, Boss Manzo, insists that they have the privilege of escorting the group into town. Before Ichi can unsheathe his sword, another samurai, Akatsuka, scares off the hoodlums.
As it turns out, Boss Sobei is on the way out and Boss Manzo, an underboss for Boss Gonzo, is taking over the town. Ichi cannot unload the kid right away because Shokichi disappeared a year earlier after piling up huge debts at one of Boss Gonzo's gambling joints. Ichi comes to learn that Shokichi, an accomplished artist, has been basically held captive and forced to make illegal erotic lithographs for the gangster. As Ichi begins to probe into Gonzo's dealings and discover where Shonkichi is being held, Akatsuka seems to be always close by and observing Gonzo's business with his own intentions. Little do the two know that thier interests behind Boss Gonzo will lead the two swordsmen to a face-off.
Now, Ichi had been successfully paired up with a baby in Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, and in that film it proved to be a great device to bring out the swordsman's softer side. So, now Ichi finds some more screen time shared with a kid, but it is less successful, more along the lines of Cop and a Half rather than Chaplin's The Kid. Needless to say, Zatoichi Challenged's brat ain't no Jackie Coogan, or at least Coogan was silent, unlike this tyke whose voice is so shrill it will curl your toes. The little shit even plays tricks on Ichi like giving him a rock that he says is candy. You can put Ryota in the pantheon of annoying Japanese kids alongside that whiner Kenny from Gamera.
While it had the great Kenji Misumi, one of samurai cinema's greats and a personal favorite director of mine, behind the camera, not every film in such a long film cycle can be perfect. Unfortunately this is one of the weaker films. Misumi's direction is still quite good and his signature perfect framing is as fantastic as it ever was, particularly in the great finale which features one of Ichi's longest duels. Katsu is also, as he always was, great. The man could act with any part of his body (insert dirty joke here) and he displays some of the finest ear and foot acting you're likely to see. But, while entertaining enough for Katsu and Misum's inherent skill, the film suffers form a slapdash script and that damn annoying kid factor. The series one major fault was it's lack of develpoment and reliance on formula. While usually that formula is a winner, here it just feels a tad tired.
The DVD: Home Vision Entertainment
Picture: Anamorphic Letterboxed. Again, Home Vision does a fine job. The print is clean, a bit on the softer side, but that probably just has to do with the films age. Colors are a tad muted. Still it is okay, this print just has slightly less overall definition than previous releases.
Sound: Monaural Japanese language with optional English subtitles. The film opens with the (no doubt Spaghetti Western influenced) strum of a guitar followed by a little rumble of drums. Its all good. Sure, its got the usual mono grumbles, but the track stays true to the films era, which is far preferable to some cranked-up remix. But that damn kid again, whose voice was obviously dubbed in, is one of the shrillest things you'll ever hear.
Extras: Liner Notes— Poster— Trailers for Zatoichi's Cane Sword, Zatoichi Challenged and Zatoichi and the Fugitives
Conclusion: Home Vision has been consistently putting out these titles, and while fine from the start, they managed to improve. They are attractive in their packaging. The transfers are quite good. They are priced great. And while they may not be extra packed, you get a poster replica that is a very cool perk. Though a weaker entry, it is still worthwhile, since even a weak Zatoichi film delivers some decent samurai flick fun and entertaining character work.