The following is a review of the Criterion Collection’s new 27-disc mega-set “Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman,” released on Nov 26, 2013.
If ever a blade went snicker-snack, it is surely Zatoichi’s humble cane sword, drawn and resheathed so quickly that even the closest onlookers often have no idea it has been wielded at all. Zatoichi’s battles usually last only a few seconds and sometimes his foes have been cut so suddenly and so cleanly they take a few extra steps before they figure out that they are terribly sadly and very irrevocably dead. Man to man duels, one against a dozen; Zatoichi is just too damn fast for anyone. Not bad for a blind masseur.
Daiei Studios had no idea what they had on their hands when they adapted a very short story by Kan Shimozawa into “The Tale of Zatoichi” (1962). It was just another jidaigeki (historical swordplay) film about an itinerant warrior who chops up bad guys, starring an up-and-coming but not yet established actor named Shintaro Katsu. Their twist on a very familiar genre was that their expert swordsman also happened to be blind. The twist worked.
Daiei didn’t even invest enough money for color stock and this first movie ends with Zatoichi discarding his weapon to lead a life of peace. The unexpected smash box office success assured that he would pick up his sword again. And again. And still again. Before Katsu was finished, his Zatoichi would headline 26 films and 100 television episodes, all built around the star who defined and was defined by the role.
The first film establishes the formula and the ensuing installments adhere faithfully to it (the second movie would be called, simply enough, “The Tale of Zatoichi Continues” and would also be the last black-and-white chapter). The restless wanderer shambles (Zatoichi always moves at an easy-going pace until he unleashes his lightning sword) into a new town , gets embroiled in a mess involving local thugs or corrupt government officials (basically the same thing in this jaundiced vision of rural 1840s Japan) and the helpless farmers or innkeepers exploited by them.
Zatoichi relishes his role as a homeless (and masterless) outsider, but always sides with the weak against the strong. He is a gentle warrior who prefers simple, sensual pleasures to battle, but social injustice always stirs his passions. So do the series of beautiful women Zatoichi protects and sometimes falls for, but with whom he never quite consummates a relationship. Mix in a good game of dice (Zatoichi loves to gamble, especially when he can show up the cheats) and a climactic swordfight and you’ve got the basic structure of every Zatoichi film.
The formula satisfies for many reasons, but none of them would matter without Katsu himself. A larger-than-life personality both on and off-screen, Katsu harnessed his penchant for melodramatic excess to create a surprisingly complex and vividly delineated character. Katsu’s unforgettable all-purpose laugh conveys an array of moods from humility to menace, and he has fun mixing and matching Zatoichi’s seemingly conflicting qualities: the blind masseur is a deadly killer who racks up a body count well into the hundreds over the course of the series, but he would prefer never to draw his sword at all and he’s a total pushover for kids.
Though Zatoichi has little to fear from his opponents, he is never fully at ease because he has not yet come to terms with his blindness, which we eventually learn occurred sometime in late childhood (his name, by the way, is actually Ichi, while Zato refers to his low social status among the blind). He uses his perceived handicap to great advantage (many a yakuza boss regrets dismissing him as a “blind bastard”) and every film focuses on the degree to which his other senses have been greatly heightened; he can even tell whether dice are odd or even merely by how they sound rolling around in the cup! Yet he is genuinely wounded when others condescend to him, and he fears that his blindness makes him an unworthy romantic partner. Zatoichi slouches and he eats like a slob, rice caking on his lips and chin as he shovels it furiously down his gullet. He’s only perfect on the battlefield.
Over the years, Katsu had plenty of screen time to breathe life into his signature character with little touches like this, and the gradual accretion of details amounts to something and someone both epic and unforgettable. The films, usually clocking in at 80-90 minutes apiece, were cranked out at a furious pace, the first hitting theaters in 1962 and the nineteenth (“Samaritan Zatoichi”) in 1968. His adventures were pulp outings with pulp titles, including English translations such as “Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold” (1964), “Fight, Zatoichi, Fight” (1964), and “Zatoichi and the Doomed Man” (1965).
But taken as a whole the films create a clearly defined world as small and intimate as Middle Earth is vast and teeming, and more accessible because of it. Though the unbeatable swordsman with absurdly accurate senses of hearing and smell was undeniably a superhero of sorts, he wasn’t saving the world and slaying kings. He was the kind of hero who always had time on his schedule to right the smallest of wrongs, even to change a baby’s diaper when necessary. Name the job, and Zatoichi was your man.
The films get somewhat darker over time, especially after Katsu’s creative team took over from Daiei in 1970,. But Zatoichi remains an amiable soul and a steady, calming presence throughout, always battling inequity, always with a ready laugh along with his flashing sword, and almost always marking the end of each film by walking off down a dusty road, both blessed and doomed to wander the countryside as a solitary avenging angel.
I’ve “only” had the opportunity to watch twelve of the films in the set (which includes all 25 Zatoichi movies made from 1962-1973, but not the last-gasp final Katsu vehicle released in 1989 or the Takeshi Kitano reboot from 2003). Instead of picking any single episode in this remarkably consistent series, I’ll simply say that I enjoyed every one that I’ve seen and it’s primarily because of Katsu’s warm, commanding performance.
But the films are only half the story here.
This beautifully crafted set from Criterion is an eloquent argument against streaming as the “good enough” option. I’ll get to the graphics in a second, but there’s a distinct pleasure in holding this hefty tome in your hands, leafing through the DVD and Blu-ray sleeves and then through the accompanying hardcover booklet. As I mentioned above, Zatoichi is a superhero of sorts, and superheroes don’t work solely as digital files. You own a superhero collection. You hold it. You show it off on your shelf. You take it out over and over again to look through it.
Criterion clearly agrees as they have brought in several comic book artists and other talented illustrators to design this set. First there’s the fold-out booklet of discs. They are organized by threes with an illustrated page with three film titles and then two DVDs (with one or two films each) and one Blu-ray (with three films) tucked into the accompanying sleeves. The art here is minimalist but the variation in colors catches the eye. The 25th film is on its own disc which also has the set’s supplements (see Extras below).
The set also includes a separate 96-page hardcover booklet that starts with a lengthy essay/series overview by author Geoffrey O’Brien and then two pages devoted to each of the 25-films, one page with an illustration, the other with an essay that combines plot summary with production information and analysis, all provided by author Chris D. Some of the drawings are wonderful as you would expect from a talent roster that includes Paul Pope, Scott Morse, Yuko Shimizu, Matt Kindt, and others. While flipping through this book I saw the art for “Zatoichi Goes To the Fire Festival” (1970) and thought, “Man, this guy sure paints like Bill Sienkiewicz” and no wonder; it’s Bill Sienkiewicz! The booklet wraps up with an English translation of the very short story published in 1948 by Kon Shimozawa that planted the seed of the Zatoichi legend.
This is one of the most beautiful DVD/Blu-ray sets I’ve ever seen, and I haven’t gone a day in the week and a half since I received it without looking through its pages. I realize that most of the titles have been released individually on SD in the past, so the DVDs in this dual format set might take up more weight than they provide function, but I even love that weight. And befitting the humility of our hero, the thick cardboard sleeve that all the material tucks into doesn’t feature the hero’s name anywhere. Turn it a certain way on your shelf and nobody will know Zatoichi is lurking and waiting, just the way he prefers it. I even like the fact that this 25-film set only gets a single spine number (679) in the Criterion Collection.
If you appreciate the tactile as well as visual qualities of a well-designed set, “Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman” is a genuine treat. Yes, I am smitten.
The Films By Blu-ray (the Blu-rays are not numbered but include the number of each film within the series on the front):
Blu-ray #1: 1. “The Tale of Zatoichi” (1962, 96 min.), 2. “The Tale of Zatoichi Continues” (1962, 72 min.), 3. “New Tale of Zatoichi” (1963, 91 min.)
Blu-ray #2: 4. “Zatoichi the Fugitive” (1963, 88 min.), 5. “Zatoichi on the Road” (1963, 87 min.), 6. “Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold” (1964, 82 min.)
Blu-ray #3: 7. “Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword” (1964, 82 min.), 8. “Fight, Zatoichi, Fight” (1964, 87 min.), 9. “Adventures of Zatoichi” (1964, 88 min.)
Blu-ray #4: 10. “Zatoichi’s Revenge” (1965, 83 min.), 11. “Zatoichi and the Doomed Man” (1965, 77 min.), 12. “Zatoichi and the Chess Expert” (1965, 87 min.)
Blu-ray #5: 13. “Zatoichi’s Vengeance” (1966, 82 min.), 14. “Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage” (1966, 82 min.), “Zatoichi’s Cane Sword” (1967, 93 min.)
Blu-ray #6: 16. “Zatoichi the Outlaw” (1967, 95 min.), 17. “Zatoichi Challenged” (1967, 86 min.), 18. “Zatoichi and the Fugitives” (1968, 82 min.)
Blu-ray #7: 19. “Samaritan Zatoichi” (1968, 82 min.), 20. “Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo” (1970, 115 min.), 21. “Zatoichi Goes To the Fire Festival” (1970, 96 min.)
Blu-ray #8: 22. “Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman” (1971, 94 min.), 23. “Zatoichi At Large” (1972, 90 min.), 24. “Zatoichi in Desperation” (1972, 95 min.)
Blu-ray #9: 25. “Zatoichi’s Conspiracy” (1973, 88 min.) plus Supplements
The films are all presented in a 2.35:1 wide-screen aspect ratio. The first two films are in black-and-white, the other 23 are in color.
These aren’t restored prints, but the high-def transfers involved a good amount of clean-up. With three high-def transfers on each Blu-ray, you probably wouldn’t expect the highest birates, but the transfers are generally very good. The 35 mm source prints aren’t flawless, so there are plenty of instances of small specks of dirt, and minor damage as well as a few distortions unique to specific films. The first film, “The Tale of Zatoichi,” exhibits some warping at the bottom of the frame in earlier scenes, for example. Colors also aren’t as vibrant as they would look with a full restoration but, again, we’re talking about 25 films.
I have no complaints about the image quality of any of the Blu-rays, though I have not had the opportunity to check every single film except for playability (no problems there). I only checked a few of the SDs in the set (there are 18 DVDs and 9 Blu-rays in this Dual Format release) and they looked fine as well. From comparisons available online, the high-def image marks a very noticeable improvement in image resolution over old SD releases of the individual films, many of which were from Home Vision Entertainment.
In short, it’s unlikely you’ve ever seen the Zatoichi films looking better.
The films all have LPCM Mono audio tracks. Audio is a bit sketchier than video quality and some musical cues sound a bit warped with just the occasional drop off in audio, but overall there are no noteworthy problems. As far as I can tell, the dialogue is clearly mixed. It’s all slightly flat, but perfectly good. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.
With 25 films in the set, Criterion didn’t feel the need to tack on too many supplements. All of the extras appear on the ninth Blu-ray, along with the final film of the original series run, “Zatoichi’s Conspiracy” (1973).
The primary supplement is “The Blind Swordsman” (1978, 58 min.) This documentary by Japanese-culture scholar John Nathan provides on-set and behind-the-scenes access to Shintaro Katsu as he is directing and starring in a television episode of “Zatoichi.” Katsu provided Nathan with remarkable access, and we see Katsu both hard at work and hard-drinking. The star always knew when the camera was on him, of course, but didn’t mind being shown at his carousing, bellowing best. Or worst, depending on your POV. His ample entourage constantly hovers around him, always ready to light his cigarettes on command. The feature is very slow in places but as an unvarnished look at the actor, it is of interest. The feature was made as the middle of a three-part PBS series on modern Japan. Criterion has also included a new interview with Nathan (2013, 18 min.). He says “filming Katsu was a horrible nightmare” but still reminisces fondly about the experience.
“Serialized Success” (2013, 27 min.) is a new interview with critic Tony Rayns who places the epic series in the context of Japanese cinema of the era. Long series were fairly common in Japan where television did not spread quite as widely or quickly as it did in America, but “Zatoichi” was a stand out even in a crowded field. Katsu was truly a mega-star in his home country, instantly recognizable to just about anyone.
In a very cool touch, Criterion has also included trailers for each of the 25 Zatoichi films, most running about 2 minutes apiece which means this is more than an extra 50 minutes of material!
I have already discussed the hardcover insert booklet above. It is probably the handsomest booklet Criterion has ever put together.
For those who care about such things, my Extras rating (10/10) is for the set design and not just the extras included on the final disc.
“Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman” is one of the neatest DVD and Blu-ray sets ever released. Criterion has distributed many better and more “important” films, but the love and attention showered on the presentation of these 25 humble action movies makes this set a genuine pleasure to look at, to hold, and to own. I don’t think of myself as a consumer guide, but I have no qualms about saying this would be just an unbelievably cool gift for the right fan. I am reserving a special place on my shelf for this beauty and I expect to take it out often, even when I’m not planning to spend another afternoon with Shintaro Katsu and his unforgettable screen creation. I love this set. Fight, Zatoichi, fight!