Zatoichi: Collectors' Edition Review

The review of the film is identical to the earlier review of the Artificial Eye standard edition of the film. My opinion on the film hasn’t changed that much in the meantime, but there are certain differences in the two DVD editions that you will find below in the DVD section of the review

As eclectic and unpredictable as ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano can be, it was nevertheless still a surprise when he announced in March 2003 that he was going to do a new film version of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman and masseur whose adventures have already been chronicled in a series of 26 period samurai films between 1962 and 1988, starring Shintarô Katsu. What is still more surprising, following on from the more adventurous, culturally-elevated subject matter of his previous arthouse film Dolls is the fact the film, barring a few typically eccentric, modernistic touches, remains to a large degree a straightforward, traditional, violent martial arts entertainment.

The storyline follows three threads – three sets of characters whose destiny leads them to a small town where two rival sets of gangsters are competing to gain supremacy of the town’s gambling dens and protection rackets. In one of the storylines, Hattori (Tadanobu Asano) is a masterless samurai, a ronin, who decides to take on work as a bodyguard for the Ginzo gang in order to earn money for medicine for his ailing wife. The second storyline deals with the Naruto children on a quest for vengeance ten years after their whole family household had been wiped out by unknown gangsters. Only Zatoichi’s backstory is left somewhat vague – perhaps since it is felt that audiences will be familiar with his history through his adventures recounted elsewhere – a loner, a blind man with heightened senses and a lethal way with a sword-cane, who fends off attacks from unknown assailants and fights injustice where he finds it.

There’s little that is new about the film’s plot, which is an amalgam of many other samurai, gangster and swordplay films and their associated debt to spaghetti western stand-offs and confrontations. The rival gangs fighting it out in a town with a wild-card ronin bodyguard recalls Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, a fight scene in a downpour recalls Seven Samurai, even the clumsy incompetence of some of the swordplay recalls both the villagers of Seven Samurai and the playful innocence of Sanjuro. But it’s not just Kurosawa who is referenced. Kitano’s mentor Kinji Fukasaku and even the director’s own yakuza films are alluded to in the big boss-organised street-mob violence, which takes on Lone Wolf & Cub-like levels of single stroke severing of body parts and arterial fountaining of blood. Even the character of Zatoichi is just an extension of the persona Kitano has developed in his earlier films.

Moving at a fairly leisurely pace with the rather unoriginal backstories being barely sketched-in, the plot nevertheless successfully sets-up its situation and brings these characters together by the middle of the film. The film then slips for a while into some light slapstick and comic-relief routines, generally played-out by Gadarukanaru Taka’s character Shinkiji, which are funny and a change of pace, but it does leave the film feeling a bit slack in the middle, losing the tone, purpose and direction that it has built-up thus far.

There are however some nice ‘Beat’ Takahashi touches in the film. Some of the fight scenes are quite inventive and the camera is a lot more dynamic than we would normally be accustomed to in a Kitano film, using lightning swipes to follow the sweeping cuts of the sword with balletic twists and twirls around the fighters. The film’s notorious drum and tap-dance sequences (not as incongruous as some reviewers have considered) and the humour are well-integrated giving the audience a chance to step back for a moment from the violent confrontations and giving Kitano a bit of a challenge that he more than rises to. Tadanobu Asano (Ichi The Killer, Last Life In The Universe) confirms his growing reputation with a strong, but nicely understated performance. Most crucially, Kitano brings his charismatic presence to the film. By simply dying his hair blond (even though Zatoichi has never been a blond character) and adopting the hunched posture of a blind man, he becomes a convincing Zatoichi and swordsman, the viewer never questioning for a second his extraordinary skills and abilities. None of this however is really enough to lift the film up into being either special or original. Despite clear attempts to give the film a certain rhythm, I found it still lacked pace, depth of characterisation and complexity of plot – but it’s an otherwise entertaining entry into the diverse filmography of a great actor and director.

Artificial Eye’s Collectors’ Edition presents the DVD in a 2-disc amaray case within a tin box. The set also includes a limited edition film cel, 3 postcards of the bold cartoon art work and a full-colour illustrated 12-page booklet with production notes by Takeshi Kitano.

A muted colour scheme is used intentionally by the director and Artificial Eye’s Collectors Edition transfer really puts the image across well. It’s not considerably different from their earlier standard edition. Blacks remain solid, the image is clear and free from marks or dustspots and there’s a nice clarity of tone throughout. The grain that could be seen in certain scenes is still there, though I noticed less of a tendency for the dot-crawl and macro-blocking compression artefacts this occasionally gave rise to in the standard edition. The picture is slightly sharper, but really the difference is minimal if it is noticeable at all. Screenshots comparisons are included below showing the Artificial Eye Standard DVD (top) and the Artificial Eye Collectors' Edition (bottom)

The biggest difference with the Collector’s Edition is the inclusion of a DTS 5.1 mix in addition to the Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes. The DTS mix really brings out the score and the rhythm which is crucial to carrying the whole pace of the film and gives the final scene that extra bit of punch to really hammer it home. Fight scenes and sword clashes also take on a new dynamic which adds considerably to the film’s full effect and the force of Kitano’s movements, which tend to appear underplayed with the mixes on the standard edition. This causes me to not only mark up the scoring on the soundtrack, but ups the film a notch in my estimation as it contributes greatly to how the film works. It also makes the argument, which I hope Artificial Eye will note, that the right sound mix can make a significant difference to how a film is perceived on its DVD release.

English subtitles are provided for the feature and are optional. All the extra features on disc 2 are in Japanese and occasional French, so are also fully subtitled. These extras subtitles are non-removable.

Making Of (39:56)
The Making Of covers the film from the press conference announcing the making of the film through shooting many of the scenes to its premiere at Venice. The Japanese voiceover narration appears to have been dropped but it is present in the narrative English subtitles. It’s an entertaining feature, of reasonable length and includes a brief interview with Kitano. This is identical to the ‘Making Of’ included on the standard edition.

Takeshi Kitano Masterclass (32:24)
Recorded at a public appearance at a Parisian Fnac store on 14th October 2003, Kitano is interviewed and answers audience questions. As ever, Kitano gives highly intelligent, considered and often very funny responses to all questions asked, covering his beginnings in film, his work with Nagisa Oshima, his approach to screenwriting, his intentions on Zatoichi and his plans for future film work. The interview is well edited, removing the in-between translations between the French questions and the Japanese answers.

Takeshi Kitano 1 (27:05)
In an interview more focussed on Zatoichi, Kitano talks about the character’s origins and his own take on it. Again, highly informative and ever witty, Kitano provides fascinating facts on everything from the etymology of the word ‘yakuza’ to swordfighting, including how he learned from Oshima how not to film fight scenes.

Takeshi Kitano 2 (12:44)
A further interview starts to repeat a lot of what has already been covered in the other interviews, but has some interesting points on the differences between the old and new versions of Zatoichi. Kitano didn’t give the character any background in his film as he considered a Japanese audience would already be familiar with the character and he didn’t expect the film to be of much interest outside of Japan.

Producer Masayuki Mori (3:37)
The producer talks about their intitial reluctance to take on a role that another actor, Shintarô Katsu, was so much identified with, and how they came to an arrangement to make the film.

Swordfight choreographers Tatsumi Nikamoto & Hiroki Tokoro (7:49)
Choreographer Nikamoto and Kitano’s stand-in Tokoro talk about how Kitano brought carefully thought-out new ideas to swordplay techniques. A certain amount of awe for Kitano’s artistry and stature (demonstrated also by the actors on Dolls) is also evident here.

Costume Designer Kazuko Kurosawa (7:11)
The daughter of Akira Kurosawa came to Zatoichi with an open mind and no reference to previous Zatoichi films. She talks through here different designs for the characters with the use of sketches and how realism wasn’t the primary consideration.

Production Designer Norihiro Isoda (5:52)
The production designer also talks about getting the balance between realism and convenience for filmmaking purposes, making the most of what they had through various tricks.

Director of Photography Katsumi Yanagishima (5:15)
Yanagishima talks about shooting the fight scenes and the choice of muted colour schemes for the film’s period look. The retouched colours were done in post production and there are some examples of the film’s look before and after. See below.

Choreographer Hideboh (The Stripes) (5:34)
Having perhaps the easiest task on the film, Hideboh talks about how, once they understood Kitano’s intentions for rhythm and pacing, The Stripes just went ahead and did their thing.

Composer Keiichi Suzuki (5:39)
The composer is quite candid about Kitano’s methods of working and how his initial ideas for R‘n’B sounds and techno rhythms eventually became stripped down to a more organic sound.

Sound Designer Senji Horiuchi (7:18)
This interview covers how much of the sound design was done in post production to meet the director’s very clear ideas about what he wanted.

Theatrical Trailer (1:32)
The trailer, presented anamorphically at 1.85:1, presents the film powerfully and effectively.

A brief biography and filmography of Takeshi Kitano as director and actor and a brief look at Asano’s career with selected filmography are included here. A hidden extra, the trailer for Dolls (1:37), can be found when a glowing lantern appears on the Filmographies menu.

Stills Galleries
Stills galleries are divided into three sections: Behind The Scenes (7), Production Stills (23), Posters (4).

By and large, I still stand by my initial assessment of Zatoichi from my earlier review of the Region 2 standard edition. It’s an enjoyable film and an entertainment more than it is a great Takeshi Kitano film. For the most part Kitano has followed the conventions of a standard chambara swordplay film with its traditional gangster and revenge storyline, but has brought his own unique, carefully considered artistry and humour to the film, making it a little bit more special. At the same time, it doesn’t rise that much above its genre trappings and the fact that it is a job-for-hire commissioned film does show. A relatively minor entry in Kitano’s filmography then, but no less entertaining for that.

You really couldn’t ask for more from the DVD presentation of the Collectors' Edition of Zatoichi. Artificial Eye have presented the DVD handsomely here - not just in the packaging, but also with a first-rate video transfer and a superb DTS soundtrack that really lifts the film and shows it off to its true strengths. The extensive extra features and interviews also give an added appreciation for Kitano’s skill as a director and bring to light the subtle, almost imperceptible but necessary personal touches he has brought to the film. In every respect this is a superb set, worthy of the special edition treatment and certainly worth the price of an upgrade.

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