Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman Review
After a gap of sixteen years on the big screen and ten years since the end of the TV series, Shintaro Katsu returned to the figure of the blind masseur, Ichi. Directing for only the second time in the film series, the 26th film of Zatoichi showed the indefatigable swordsman as an old man, tired and still up to his neck in trouble. In a lot of ways the rogueish Ichi, gambler, lover of Geisha and sentimental scourge of the Yakuza, resembled Katsu, a noted carouser and opium user. Katsu did star successfully in many other films not least of which is Incident at Blood Pass and the Hanzo the Razor films, but Zatoichi made his fame as an actor and his fortune as a producer. It also allowed him to make further wealth through his production of the excellent Lone Wolf and Cub series starring his brother, Tomisaburo Wakayama. After 25 previous entries, Zatoichi 26 was an attempt to rejuvenate the series and to update it complete with a modern rock score as it's soundtrack.
We pick up with Ichi in prison with political prisoners and bullying Yakuza, we find him scrabbling about in the dirt of a crowded cell to find his spilt gruel. After his short incarceration, he travels on to see a friend and finds himself slap bang in the middle of two gangs at war over a local town. One gang is led by the young and ruthless Goemon, played by Katsu's son, whom Ichi offends by winning big at his gambling house and then dispatching the underlings sent to ambush him and his winnings. The other gang is led by the cocky and laconic Akabei who is subject to a pincer movement from Goemon and the local government official, Hashuu, as they try to undermine his gang. Meanwhile, Zatoichi meets and befriends an artistic ronin played by the great Ken Ogata, who also becomes drawn into the yakuza war and into inevitable rivalry with Ichi. Helping a young governess, Oume, who is the prey of the evil official, Ichi is once again cast as the protector of the innocent and the punisher of the evil. Along the way the story recycles a number of scenes from the previous 25 films - the sex scene in the spa, the rolling barrel sequence from Zatoichi 14, the extra dice gag from at least 2 entries and many more smaller steals such as the lantern ambush again from Zatoichi 14. Comfortingly, the staples of the series are all present as well with chivalry, rescues of the innocent, poetic speeches about our hero's lack of sight, and gallons of blood and a glut of lost limbs.
In terms of audience expectations, Zatoichi 26 has it's bases covered and the gap of sixteen years has made little difference to the components of the plot, the emotional content of the film and the splendidly bloody action. What is done differently is the attention given to the passing of age and a beautiful elegiac quality to the comparison between the sightless Ichi and the cynical painter/samurai. One wants to see and makes up for it with holding on to his memories, and the other has seen too much and this has led to a destroyed appreciation of beauty. Ichi's supernatural awareness of his rivals' gaze and the envious nature of that gaze as it views Ichi's chivalry and fortitude are the core of this film, and when Katsu and Ogata are on screen together the film's world resembles that of Kurosawa or Kobayashi rather than an exploitation film serial. This is also the result of Katsu's direction, which like in Zatoichi in Desperation, is surprisingly artful and accomplished. Katsu uses some brilliant long takes in the hostel scenes with himself and Ogata reminiscing whilst the camera follows the waitresses below, and he even attempts some high crane and overhead tracking shots which are quite unlike any of the direction in the previous films. Katsu gives himself enough space to be poetic and encourages his cast in subtle and unusual gestural choices which are often moving or intuitive.
This unusual sensitivity adds to the tale of the ageing swordsman and the film is able to deliver the goods on the immediate level of swordplay and action as well as providing something a little more noble or intelligent. Zatoichi 26 was a fine way for Katsu to leave the character behind as the film shares the virtues and vices of it's predecessors as well as some of the developments Katsu's direction encourages. The film is given deeper moments to balance the bursts of extreme violence, and the plot remains unnecessarily complex as always. The emotional maturity does allow the film to become far more memorable than a lot of its predecessors and it can be considered one of the best of the series not to be directed by Kenji Misumi. People who enjoyed Twilight Samurai or any of Yoji Yamada's recent films may find this very enjoyable indeed.
Arrow give this longer Zatoichi film a single layer all region encoded disc to itself. The film is anamorphically presented at the ratio of 1.85:1 and the quality of the transfer is comparable to the existing R1 disc from Media Blasters. The original print looks fine with no discolouration or damage obvious and the transfer here is good if not excellent. The image is a little soft and lacking depth in the detail but the colour balance is excellent with the browns and greens of the film well represented. Grain is kept to a minimum and the contrast is solid. The only problem with the transfer is that is another standards conversion as you can see in the capture below:
The audio is a clean and clear Dolby 2.0 track which only shows distortion when the pop song is being played in the middle and at the end of the film but there are no pops or cracks elsewhere. The English subtitles are removable and are easy to read and understand. The disc comes with a menu which copies the poster art on the box cover and offers only scene selection and subtitle options. There are no extras.
The existing R1 disc possesses more extras in the way of trailers and poster art but I believe this presentation is closer to the original aspect ratio. The fact this is a standards conversion will discourage double dippers and purists despite the price tag, but first timers will find a film that is surprisingly tender alongside the blood and thunder you'd expect from this series.
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