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ZATOICHI: THE BLIND SWORDSMAN
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano, Ittoku Kishibe, Taka Guadalcanal, Michiyo Okusu
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HD, Japanese 5.1 Dolby Digital, or Spanish 2.0 Dolby Digital
Subtitles: English, Spanish, Arabian
Video: Color, 1080p high-definition 1.85:1 widescreen
Studio: Miramax
Features: Trailers, Behind-the-Scenes special, crew interviews
Length: 116 minutes
Release Date: September 15, 2009

Even a master is powerless without his sword.

Film *** ½

The blind swordsman Zatoichi has been a Japanese cultural icon for nearly a half-century.  First introduced in story form by novelist Kan Shimozawa, the character was subsequently adapted to various screen incarnations - two dozen-plus films and more than a hundred television episodes, all starring Shintaro Katsu.  But with over a dozen years since Zatoichi’s final film appearance, the time was ripe by the start of the new millennium for a revival of the classic hero.  Beat Takeshi’s thrilling The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003) thus brings the famed swordsman back into the spotlight in a mesmerizing display of stylized violence and visual flair.

Actor Beat Takeshi may not be a household name in America, but he is well-known in Japan as a gifted comedian and a versatile actor.  His long career encompasses extensive television work, including the hilarious gameshow Takeshi’s Castle (spoofed in America as MXC: Most Extreme Challenge), while his early films include many Yazuka action flicks.  As a director, Takeshi is equally accomplished, with The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi being his eleventh film (and ultimately his biggest commercial success).

While The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi is a stand-out action extravaganza with innovative swordfights, it attempts to incorporate contemporary touches which re-invent the Zatoichi character and add a dash of humor to the proceedings.  This go-around, the famous swordsman has blonde hair, wears a dark blue kimono, and wields a red shikomizue (a sword concealed inside a cane).  But, Zatoichi is still a part-time masseur who does not allow the inconvenience of blindness deter him from his one guilty vice - a love of gambling.  And as always, Zatoichi’s fighting style and trademark flourishes are recognizable as ever; fans of the traditional portrayal of the swordsman by Shintaro Katsu may rest assured that the essence of the beloved Zatoichi character remains intact.

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi opens with a quick and bloody sword fight that re-introduces Zatoichi to audiences and demonstrates his undiminished skills.  The bulk of the story is set in a small rural village, hardly more than a rest stop for weary travelers.  Here, the wandering Zatoichi has found lodgings with a kind local woman, Oume (Michiyo Okusu).  He has also befriended the hapless Shinkichi (Taka Guadalcanal), his new companion for regular forages into the town’s gambling house.  Peace and anonymity, however, will allude the masseur, for this town is besieged by opposing crimelords, chief among them Ginzo, and their warring gangs; their insatiable demands for “protection” money threatens to drive the townspeople into poverty and ruination, and sooner or later, Zatoichi’s skills will be called upon to save the town.

Aside from Zatoichi, other visitors will also play a pivotal role in the fate of the town and its people.  A traveling ronin Hattori (Tadanobu Asano) and his ill wife (Yui Natsukawa) have settled in town.  Desperate to find a way to pay for his wife’s medications, Hattori has taken on a job as bodyguard to the crimelord Ginzo (Ittoku Kishibe), despite his wife’s protests.  Hattori is not an evil man but has been driven to evil deeds due to circumstances.  Likewise, two traveling geishas, Okinu and Osei, last surviving siblings of a Naruto family massacre, have persevered years of hardship by selling themselves or stealing customers’ money.  Theirs is a quest of vengeance - to find the men responsible for their family’s murder.  The geishas, who harbor a shocking secret, know only the names of the culprits, Inosuke, Tashichi, and a mysterious Kuchinawa boss, but the trail of these criminals has led the geishas to this small town.  How then will the separate paths of the blind swordsman Zatoichi, the desperate ronin-husband Hattori, and the avenging geishas intertwine?

One evening at the local gambling house, a riot breaks out due to the suspicion of cheating.   Zatoichi is present, and in the ensuing melee, the mild-mannered, unassuming masseur quickly reveals his uncanny skill.  This inciting incident soon draws the attentions of the town’s criminal bosses, who must deal with the blind swordsman violently and decisively or risk the destruction of their little empire.  Lesser minions of Ginzo’s gang are sent merely to fall to Zatoichi’s blade, and inevitably, a dangerous face-off with the highly skilled Hattori must await!

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi is a film replete with stylized violence.  The combats are swift and severe - severed limbs and spurting blood are in great abundance.  Yet the film is not without its lighter moments, as there is a lot of ritualized and ceremonial dancing, too; suffice it to say that this is a film in constant motion.  Sidekick Taka Guadalcanal also nearly steals all his scenes as the film’s comic relief, and even the grand finale is a surprising one that has some fun uprooting the conventions of the traditional period samurai film and previous Zatoichi films.

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi is an entertaining entry in the long line of Zatoichi films.  It updates the hero for a new generation yet retains much his beloved classic traits and mannerisms.  The Brits may have a James Bond, and the Yanks a Batman or Superman, but the Japanese have Zatoichi, the master swordsman!

Video *** ½

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi offers vivid colors and the sharp details expected of any 1080p high-definition presentation.  The source video has a mostly pristine appearance with a touch of grain on close inspection.  Silver retention post-production processing was used to soften the film colors and to enhance the film’s period feel.

Audio ****

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi is presented in English 5.1 DTS-HD, Japanese 5.1 Dolby Digital, or Spanish 2.0 Dolby Digital.  As always with foreign films, this film is best-appreciated in its original language.  The audio quality is spectacular with crisp sounds which create an immersive aural environment for the film’s numerous fight (or dance) sequences.  The speakers will get a huge workout during the film’s bombastic surprising finale, complete with rhythmic drums and shamisen music.

Features ** ½

The main menu has a stylized appearance backed by soothing shamisen-played music.  There are trailers for Adventureland, Lost: the Fifth Season, and The Proposal as well as promo ads for Blu-ray technology and various Miramax films.

There are two main supplements on this disc.  Both should be seen only after watching the film itself to avoid spoiling any plot surprises.  The Behind-the-Scenes feature (40 min.) follows filming from a press conference announcing the projection through the production shooting and triumphant premiere at the Venice Film Festival.  This feature is in Japanese with English subtitles.  The scripted English narration is rather bizarre; one almost senses that the narrator had been plucked away from a National Geographic or Nature special on PBS.

The crew interviews (21 min.) feature cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima, production designer Norihiro Isoda, costume supervisor Kazuko Kurosawa, and master swordsman Tatsumi Nikamoto.  Not surprisingly, topics of discussion include film processing, the film’s various sets, period costumes, and fight choreography.

Summary:

More violent and stylized than previous Zatoichi offerings, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi offers the thrilling return of an iconic Japanese cinematic hero.  Highly recommended for fans of samurai films or action films in general!

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