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Blind Swordsman: The Tale of Zatoichi

(aka "Zatoichi monogatari")

directed by Kenji Misumi
Japan 1962

Review by Gary Tooze

Posters from the Series

 

In the process of making myself more culturally aware, I purchased and recently watched the DVD of "Zatoichi: Blind Swordsman". This is the first installment of a Japanese film series, of which a further 25 more were made (17 to be released eventually by Home Vision DVD). The story surrounds the exploits and adventures of a blind masseur turned swordsman. "Itchi", as he is known, embodies all the attributes of a strong folk hero. He utilizes a prodigious skill to invariably defeat injustice where he finds it. He wanders the countryside in the tradition of a ronin Samurai-for-hire.

 

As an action hero, the star, Katsu Shintaro might leave western audiences with something to be desired. He is recognizably pudgy yet plays a character renowned for his athletic art. On top of that he plays a blind man. This handicap does not detract from his ability to endear himself to us, but rather reinforces that bond. With unexpected skills he extricates himself from various situations in a sly intelligent manner, and in the process often showing up boorish louts and lowlifes. I would say a 'Robin Hood' comparisons might be a bit of a stretch, but appropriate in certain situations. Although desirous of money (actually known as a "gangster" of which he shows no pride), he is proud and his values are never swayed by monetary gain.  Unlike Robin Hood though, Itchi is a lone wolf. He has no band of merry-men that he leads.

 

The director, Kenji Misumi is satisfactorily adept and actually shows some unique and interesting camera angles whilst fully utilizing the range of his 2.35:1 scope. The framing is not Kurosawa, but it is subtle and the film is nicely paced. As a westerner I had to go through the film twice to follow the intricacies of the plot and characters, but it was not a demanding effort. It had much of the charm of an old-time western with a certain gentle and noble code of honor portrayed accurately by Shintaro. The fighting sequences are not overly explicit and do not drone on excessively. I found the film well balanced in a similar manner to the "Kung Fu" TV series with David Carradine. Itchi's blindness seems to have left him with a perfect sense of serenity and justice. He simply travels around touching new characters lives, interfacing with them, all while imparting his own brand of unselfish gentle wisdom.

 

‘Zatoichi' films are part of a genre that will seemingly always have an appeal. Good vs. Bad, underdog vs. the corrupt, honor battling evil. Truly its hard not to like this, from any perspective. Will I buy the others in the series?... well, I'll certainly go for at least one more. Aside from the simplicity and underplayed grandeur of these films, I am a sucker for 2.35:1, black and white, Japanese films. The cinematography on Zatoichi is likewise a big selling feature for me too. I unashamedly give this out of.

 DVD Review: Home Vision Entertainment  Region 1 

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Released on DVD May 14th, 2002 "Zatoichi: Part 1" is presented in wonderful letterboxed 2.35:1 ratio. The box claims it has been restored and I have no reason to disbelieve it, but it is not as sharp as say Criterion's 'Notorious' or  'Rebecca',. It is none-the-less has fine picture quality. Pretty fair contrast and at times is quite sharp with detailed images and close-ups, but fails with images in the background. Blacks are strong but not as piercing as some state of the art DVDs, of course, this does not have the marketability and sales power. This DVD looks fine though with hazy moments in spots. The audio is in Japanese (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono). There are clear white optional English subtitles included.

In the extras dept. there are 10 stills in a click-through gallery, 4 trading cards and essay in the Keep-case packaging, and nicely done live-action chapter menu's. Improved picture quality and additional extras would have been nice, but I am not overly surprised or disappointed that are not available. out of

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Gary Tooze