Zatoichi The Outlaw Review
Out of a total of 26 films between 1962 and 1988 and a television series, Zatoichi The Outlaw (Zatôichi rôyaburi in its original form) was number 16, made in 1967, though it was the first to be made by Toho, the studio made famous by Godzilla. This was after Daiei had already made eighteen Zatoichi films and after Zatoichi The Outlaw, Toho made six more. The series was brought to an end by Shochiku with Zatôichi, also known as Zatôichi 26.
The main differentiating factor between Zatoichi and many other samurai is that he is blind. Early on in the film, and this must be a continuation of a tradition set by earlier Zatoichi films, our hero mocks a sighted man in a cafe, in this case a quite shockingly poor archer, at his attempts to hit a large target. This man challenges Zatoichi to try and hit the same target and, in full respect of this cinematic standard, Zatoichi not only accepts the challenge but asks a waitress to put a much smaller target in its place. After asking her to bang the target, he fires an arrow, which successfully hits home. Zatoichi, the blind swordsman, has shown us, through cinematic shorthand, how deadly he is, even without sight.
This setting up of the Zatoichi character seems to go on for some time and there is no clear indication of when we move from these early scenes into the story of Zatoichi The Outlaw. Instead, it just seems to tumble into being at some point when a few plot strands begin to come together. The basic plot concerns Zatoichi arriving at the village of Kiyotaki where he becomes involved in the battle between two gangland bosses, or Oyabun - Tamizo and Asagoro. The village has had poor harvests during the preceding seasons and the two Oyabun have different approaches on how to resolve the increasing feelings of desperation amongst the starving peasants. Tazimo runs a crooked casino, getting those of weaker wills to gamble their way into further hardship. Asagoro appears to be more benevolent, trying to pay off the debts of the villagers and so Zatoichi initially sides with him against Tazimo, even so far as gambling his savings in Tazimo's casino before demonstrating the games are fixed in favour of the owner of the casino.
Before long, however, the situation becomes more complicated by the presence of Ohara Shusei, a samurai without a sword, who, during the course of the film, increasingly gains the support of the villagers. Of course, it soon becomes clear that Asagoro is not all he seems to be and that Uneshiro Suga (Akira Nishimura), a man who appears to be a puritan, is the puppetmaster behind both Tazimo and Asagoro and who must be stopped if the villagers are to be allowed to resolve their own destiny.
Zatoichi The Outlaw leads to a thrilling two-stage climax where a revolution, of sorts, occurs. It is let down by the final confrontation, which is a winded and weakened version of the penultimate fight but the journey of Zatoichi between one and the other just about makes up for it.
The good points about Zatoichi are very much to do with the central character, played by Shintarô Katsu. Katsu is not a handsome man, shabby more than anything else and clearly not one that you would expect as a samurai, lack of sight apart. No doubt, this has much to do with the overturning of expectations, both within the film and in the audience and it does work. Katsu plays the character with great charm and the early scenes work better than the remainder of the film with Zatoichi overcoming the deceitfulness of those trying to rip him off because he's blind with good humour, when we know he could just as easily lop their limbs off to make his point.
The other great part of this character is that he has a moral responsibility to bear against his actions, with an understanding of what he does, as a samurai, and the impact in has on the families and friends of those he has slain. During the film, he is ambushed by some men on a path out of the village and in responding quickly with violence, kills one and wounds another.
Instead of celebrating his victory, Zatoichi stands spiritually alone, almost ashamed, as he is slapped about the face by the sister of the man he has just killed.
In these aspects, Zatoichi The Outlaw is great, presenting a character who is almost physically foolish with a groaning, guttural snigger at much that goes on but mentally sharp and with an understanding of death that could only come from one who deals with it on an everyday basis but who has never resolved himself to it.
The main problem with Zatoichi The Outlaw though is that, being honest, the story is just too cluttered to allow anyone else's character to be explored in the same depth as Zatoichi's, giving the impression that large amounts of the film is missing. For example, after the ambush, there is a cut from the roadside, where Zatoichi is being slapped about the face to a later scene in a house where the murder of this woman's brother seems to have been forgotten about. Indeed, there are quite a number of moments, mostly early on in the film, where it just was not particularly clear what was going on and who was doing what to whom and why. Now, I'm all for complicated plots but Zatoichi The Outlaw does not have a complex narrative, indicating little more than a lack of cohesion within the script. The result of this is that too often I lost interest in the plot and just relaxed into the feel of the film, which is fine if that was the intention but the overall feeling is of only getting a general impression of what was possible, not of the complete picture.
The picture is not that well transferred but is perfectly acceptable but, as with Lady Snowblood, fans of Zatoichi will find the availability of the DVD more important than any problems with the print.
The print, as it is, is a little grainy at times, it is only very occasionally soft and whilst it does appear a little washed of colour, my view is that this is intentional as the reds of the frequent splashes of blood are spot on.
The picture is presented in 2.2:1 non-anamorphic with colour coded subtitles beyond that aspect ration at both the top and bottom of the picture.
The one major problem I had is that on my Pioneer 636, there was no time elapsed/remaining indicated either on the front of the unit or the on-screen display. This also happened on the software DVD player on a PC so if anyone actually gets it to work, please let us know.
The film is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, which is fine for a film of this age as a remix to any other format would have added little. The soundtrack is a little noisy, having a small amount of hiss on it but the transfer has been well made.
As with other films from Artsmagic in their samurai range, an English soundtrack is not available though the subtitles are excellent but always on. The subtitles are placed at the bottom of the screen and make use of multiple colours to designate which characters are speaking. Much less frequently than other films in this range are notes at the top of the screen, offering some background information on places and events used as a backdrop for the setting of the film.
Previews: Trailers are available here for:
- Red Lion (2.2:1, 2m2s)
- Ambush At Blood Pass (2.2:1, 1m47s)
- Zatoichi The Outlaw (2.2:1, 1m32s)
- Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1.33:1, 2m28s)
- Samurai II: Duel At Ichijoji Temple (1.33:1, 1m50s) and
- Samurai III: Duel At Ganryu Island (1.33:1, 1m35s)
These previews are common across DVDs from the Artsmagic samurai range as they have appeared on other releases. It would have been nice to see a different range of previews as, oddly, we have the preview for Zatoichi The Outlaw on the disc containing the same film.
Stills: Fourteen images are presented from the film, from which almost all the later give away major plot points and do so in order.
Director - Profile of Satsuo Yamamoto: Two screens with a little text detailing his life and a short filmography.
Profile of Shintarô Katsu: Two still screens detailing the life of the star of Zatoichi The Outlaw but without a filmography.
Cast: Four still screens listing no more than the name of the actor, the role they play and a picture of them in character, taken from the film.
Artwork Stills: Six DVD cover prints are available onscreen for the Lone Wolf And Cub, or Babycart, series of films. Again, these previews are common across DVDs from the Artsmagic samurai range as they have appeared on other releases
As with the lack of an elapsed time when watching the film, it was also missing during the extras. What was more annoying, however, was that the arrow and select keys on my DVD player did not function and the extras, and all menus, could only be navigated using the number pad. Therefore, if you want to view still number 12 in the Stills section, enter 12 on the numberpad as scrolling to it and pressing select will not work.
My view is as an innocent when viewing this film, as I am not particularly knowledgeable on the samurai genre so there may be similarities with other films in the Zatoichi series I have missed here but in my opinion, this was a bit of a mixed bag. The move from the early scenes into the main story was clumsily handled and did not really become resolved until quite late in the film. I've mentioned that it seems shorter than it should be and I am sure I will not be the only one who watches a chapter without knowing what is going on in the hope that it somehow gets back on track.
It is an enjoyable film but it could have been more and, coming off the back of watching Lady Snowblood, the extras could have been improved. I cannot wholly recommend it as I don't think the humour in the film and the character of Zatoichi alone are able to carry the entire film but, if you have an interest in the samurai films, this will probably be an unmissable entry in a favoured series of films and little I say with affect view. However, to a casual viewer, Zatoichi The Outlaw disappoints whereas, with an improved structure, it could have been great.
Zatoichi The Outlaw is part of the Warrior label from Artsmagic Ltd. You can discover more about this and other releases on the Warrior label from the official Artsmagic website where you can also purchase their titles direct.