Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman is an iconic, well loved and well known collection of films (and a TV series in Japan). The character was portrayed in 26 films (27 if you count the failed reboot in early 2000s), and this Criterion Collection... collection, collects 25 of the 26 films in one box.
Criterion has either restored, or received restored film elements for this release, and anyone that has seen the original DVD run, either the Animeigo films or the Home Vision releases, you are in for one of the greatest Zatoichi treats possible. The video quality, even comparing DVD to DVD, between the releases you can't help but see better detail and a higher quality encode over all with the Criterion Collection version.
If you are a Zatoichi fan, you owe it to yourself to own this set, even if you don't (like me) agree with having to spend more money for something you won't really use (the DVDs). The box is beautiful. The hardcover book included is great. The disc packaging is beautiful, though I'm not sure I love the cardboard sleeve concept. Then the box that houses it all really pulls it all together.
For those wanting a longer review of the quality of the release:
Every film has been remastered (there are 3 listed processes, I assume given different film stocks being used change the way they are handled). Frame by frame. Dust, dirt and scratches were repaired, removed or minimized if it meant losing quality.
Each Blu Ray contains 3 films (8 discs total), with the exception of the final disc which contains one film (Conspiracy) and the extra supplements.
Each film is AVC encoded and bit rates are between 20-30 for the most part. There is absolutely nothing to complain about in regards to the transfer to Blu Ray.
I have not seen any issues with any of the colors, or black levels. I've watched roughly 7 of the films as of this review and peeked at the supplements on disc 25. If I run into any issues in the next bunch of discs, I will report it here. I don't anticipate any, given this is a Criterion edition, but it can happen.
I only spot checked the DVDs, but they use the remastered video and bitrates are good, with no compression issues.
So, the Zatoichi films were all recorded in mono sound, and each track here is beautifully restored/remastered from the original film elements. Each is encoded, or rather, not really encoded but put on the disc uncompressed in LPCM.
During my viewing, I heard absolutely no audio issues/concerns. Will update this review if this changes.
I did not check the audio encoding the DVD release.
This is one of the biggest stars of this release.
The plastic wrapper on the set includes the back panel information you expect, but the front uses the Zatoichi brown toned image seen on the Amazon listing on the back. This means that if you pull the wrap off completely, the artwork on the box is completely unmolested. It also means, if you throw away the wrap, you will lose one of the best image, in my opinion, on this set. I slipped the wrap off, looked at the box and put the wrap back on. I'm a nut.
The artwork looks fantastic, if not a bit more pastel than I would maybe like. Even still, it looks great and the box itself is quite sturdy.
The hardback book retains the pastel color scheme on the cover, the interior being black and white text, with an image, in color and illustrated by various artists depicting the film being described, on the opposite side of the film descriptions.
The only thing I don't like, and it's not because it's ugly, it's actually quite beautiful on the outside, is the actual packaging used to house the discs. It's hard to explain how they laid this out, but I'll try. When you open the book style package, all quality-ish cardboard, the right "page" is a cardboard page with a pouch for the Blu Ray. I don't like my discs in cardboard pouches for fear of scratches, especially when the set is $200 MSRP. The other odd thing is the DVDs. The left "page" flips out horizontally, with 2 DVDs are needed for each film set in their own "page" and pouch.
The Blind Swordsman, a 1978 documentary about Zatoichi portrayer and filmmaker Shintaro Katsu, along with a new interview with its director, John Nathan
New interview with Asian-film critic Tony Rayns
Trailers for all twenty-five films
The Blind Swordsman documentary alone almost makes the price tag worth it in this set. Yeah, I'm over-exagerating, but it's a powerful documentary that really shows the greatness of the character, but more importantly to me, Shintaro Katsu. Worth watching, no question.
This set sweats awesome. Everything about it, with the packaging concerns I have disregarded, is of the highest quality and caliber. I wish I didn't have to buy the DVDs and could have saved a few bucks, but honestly, about $8 a film, less than a visit to the cinema, is MORE than worth it for this set in my eyes. For someone who has never seen a Zatoichi film, it will be a very hard sell, but if you have seen an enjoyed any Zatoichi film in the past that is included in this set, you will most likely appreciate this set.
VERY Highly recommended.