Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (25-Film Box)

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan
  • Review Date: Nov 25, 2013
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Director

Various (see review text)

Release Date(s)

1962-1973 (November 26, 2013)

Studio(s)

Daiei Studios/Toho Co. Ltd./Katsu Production Co./Janus Films (Criterion - Spine #679)

Review

[Back to Page 2]

 

7 – Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword (Zatoichi Abare Tako)

1964 – Daiei Studios – Director: Kazuo Ikehiro

Film Rating: B-
Video/Audio:
A/B+

Zatoichi's Flashing SwordZatoichi is, as ever, on the run from gangsters when he’s shot in the back by a thug who’s trying to prove his own worth.  When Ichi awakens, he finds that he’s being well tended to because a kind passerby left money for his care.  Hoping to repay this kindness, Ichi tracks his benefactor down and learns that she’s the beautiful daughter of a local boss.  This boss is generous and well-liked by his people, but a rival and more corrupt boss is determined to steal his business.  So once again, Ichi finds himself taking sides in yet another yakuza turf war.

The plot here is a little thinner than in most of the Ichi films, and that’s saying something.  But what Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword lacks in complexity, it more than makes up for in humor, action and cinematic style.  The film’s title music has touches of Bernard Herrmann and its climatic ending, vibrantly colored by the light of exploding fireworks, is a classic.  Flashing Sword also features one of the best opening scenes in the series (which clearly inspired a scene with Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid decades later).  Let’s just say… there’re no flies on old Ichi.

- Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt

 

8 – Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (Zatoichi Kessho-Tabi)

1964 – Daiei Studios – Director: Kenji Misumi

Film Rating: B+
Video/Audio:
A-/B+

Fight, Zatoichi, FightFight, Zatoichi, Fight finds our favorite blind masseur once more on the run.  This time, he’s being pursued by a ruthless band of samurai hired to kill him.  Thinking they have Ichi cornered, they instead kill a young woman who is returning to her husband with their infant son.  Feeling responsible for the woman’s death, Ichi resolves to deliver the child safely to its father.  Naturally, the samurai aren’t giving up and continue to harass him.  Complicating matters further, Ichi also saves the life of another young woman, who’s been scratching out a living as a petty thief.  To pay back his kindness, she reluctantly agrees to accompany Ichi and help him care for the child.  But as they near their destination, each of them grows more attached to the baby and sees it as a chance to start over and lead a better life.

Zatoichi’s image as a deadly-dangerous swordsman is in sharp contrast to the sweet, humble and even loving fellow he becomes in the presence of a child here.  That simple change tells you a great deal about who Ichi really is – far more than would any exposition of the kind you’d get in a typical Hollywood film.  Katsu makes the most of his chance to play a different side of Ichi, revealing a warmth and humor that shines off the screen.  And though you’d think a child would handicap him in battle, Ichi shows just how good a swordsman he really is, dispatching multiple enemies without breaking a sweat... and all while changing a diaper.  This is a classic Ichi tale and a great entry in this series.  For you trivia buffs, this film was also the inspiration for the Rutger Hauer’s Blind Fury.

- Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan

 

9 – Adventures of Zatoichi (Zatoichi Sekisho-Yaburi)

1964 – Daiei Studios – Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda

Film Rating: C+
Video/Audio:
A-/B

Adventures of ZatoichiThere’s nothing like a new year to inspire a fresh round of greed, corruption and graft in the heart of your average yakuza boss.  At least, that’s what Ichi learns when he arrives at a small village to find himself in the middle of a bureaucratic plot to suck every last coin from the pockets of the kind residents.  Ichi has travelled to the village at the request of an escaped criminal, who’s asked him to deliver a letter to his sister.  Finding the place deep in preparation for the New Year’s celebration, Ichi quickly befriends the performers, including two young tumblers who act as his eyes for the rest of the film.  Ichi eventually takes lodging in a crowded inn, where he shares a room with a woman named Saki.  As it happens, Saki is on a mission to find her missing father and Ichi soon discovers that his new roommate is connected to both the escaped criminal and the local corruption.  Ichi’s desire to help the woman also raises the ire of a samurai who’s eager to best the legendary blind swordsman.

Adventures of Zatoichi was the last of four films released back to back in 1964.  This isn’t the best of the bunch but, as we’ve said before, even an average Ichi flick is better than most other films out there.  The best part of this installment is the supporting cast, which includes a number of legendary Japanese comedians.  They deliver a good bit of humor and slapstick here.  Note that the color, contrast and detail in this BD image are very good, though the blacks look a little gray at times.

- Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt

 

10 – Zatoichi’s Revenge (Zatoichi Nidan-Giri)

1965 – Daiei Studios – Director: Akira Inoue

Film Rating: A
Video/Audio:
A-/B

Zatoichi's RevengeZatoichi’s Revenge finds the blind swordsman visiting one of the villages of his youth – the place where, under his mentor Hikonoichi, he first learned to be a masseur.  But Ichi discovers that Hikonoichi has recently been murdered and his daughter forced into prostitution.  Typical of the corruption subplots in this series, it turns out that a local bureaucrat and his gambling chief have set up a scheme to claim the daughters of their debtors as prostitutes.  Naturally, Ichi’s plan to free his mentor’s daughter (as well as the other girls) can only end in a series of bloody brawls that are sure to delight fan of this series.

Zatoichi’s Revenge is definitely among the top three best Zatoichi installments ever made.  Even though it starts off on a comedic footing, it ends up packing a serious action wallop.  Ichi’s sword tastes blood over and over again in this film, and it rocks.  Another reason this is one of the best in the Ichi series is because of the character’s growth here.  Simply put, Ichi is as badass in this film as he’s ever been.  It’s almost as if Sam Peckinpah borrowed the name of director Akira Inoue to make this a spaghetti western-infused samurai flick.  There just aren’t enough good things to say about it.  If you’ve enjoyed Ichi up until this point… you’ll loveZatoichi’s Revenge.

- Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan

 

11 – Zatoichi and the Doomed Man (Zatoichi Sakate-Giri)

1965 – Daiei Studios – Director: Kazuo Mori

Film Rating: B
Video/Audio:
A/B

Zatoichi and the Doomed ManWhile locked up on gambling charges, Ichi meets a man named Shimazo who is sentenced to die.  Shimazo claims to be innocent and, knowing Ichi will soon be released, begs him to find the one man who can prove his innocence and also tell his family he’ll be home soon.  After his recent string of grueling adventures, Ichi is hesitant to accept this errand and initially decides not to – perhaps the only time in this series that Ichi chooses to avoid helping someone in need.  But this is an Ichi film, after all, so Fate (as well as a con man’s inept scheme) puts him right back on the Good Samaritan’s path.  He quickly learns that friends are foes, greed rules all… and everyone is somehow involved.  Such is Ichi’s lot in life – round and round the circle goes.

In addition to his work here, director Kazuo Mori helmed a pre-Zatoichi film for Daiei as well called The Blind Menace (1960), also starring Katsu as a blind masseur, though an evil one.  The financial success of that film played a direct role the development of the later Ichi series.

- Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt

 

12 – Zatoichi and the Chess Expert (Zatoichi Jigoku-Tabi)

1965 – Daiei Studios – Director: Kenji Misumi

Film Rating: A-
Video/Audio:
A/B

Zatoichi and the Chess ExpertWhile travelling by boat to the island of Enoshima, Ichi befriends a chess-playing samurai named Tadasu Jumonji.  Impressed with his blind playing skills, Jumonji decides to join Ichi in his travels.  To make a little money along the way, Ichi pulls his trademark dice game scam on a group of thugs.  Connected to the locally-influential Banyu crime family (and seeking their revenge), the thugs cause Ichi trouble upon arrival in Enoshima.  During a scuffle, Ichi sends one of them flying out a window, where the man lands on a young girl named Miki.  Miki is hurt and her guardian, a pretty shamisen player named Tane, can’t afford to pay for the medicine she needs.  Feeling responsible, Ichi raises the necessary funds to save the girl’s life.  But who is Tane really, and why are a group of men hunting her?  Is Jumonji truly a friend to Ichi or an enemy waiting to pounce on him?  And how do the mysterious Sagawa, Roppei and Kume fit into the story?

Zatoichi and the Chess Expert is pure Ichi fun – a great installment to spin if you’re choosing to sample just the classic entries in this series.  This film has everything that makes Ichi so great, including fine humor, Ichi’s usual affection for children, a subtle and twisting match of wits and some truly great sword fights.  Actor Mikio Narita, who plays Jumonji, will be familiar to some of you – he was a regular in many of Daiei’s yakuza films in the 1960s.

- Bill Hunt and Todd Doogan

 

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