First let me say that I am basing this review on my old bootleg collection of this television series. I am sure that Tokyo Shock was able to get clear prints of this series just as in the past they, Animeigo, and Hve were all able to get first rate prints of the Zatoichi movies.
By the 1960's Japanese cinema was dominated by film series with 3 or four "episodes" a year. Actor Shintaro Katsu had portrayed a blind masseur in the movie "Shiranui Kengyo" [Agent Shiranui ]. In 1962 Katsu stared as yet another blind masseur in the film "Zatoichi Monogatari" [ The tale of the low ranking blind man Ichi. ] In the movie Ichi had a name that gave him the rank of "Zato" which basically meant the lowest level of the blind men's masseur guild. However, this was just a cover. Ichi was actually a high ranking Yakuza assassin who's master swordsmanship was sought after by all the Yakuza bosses. While Zatoichi was completely blind, he had incredible hearing, a mastery of the Iaijitsu style of fighting, and a deadly blade hidden within his cane. In the film Ichi is imployed to fight in a Yakuza gang war and is forced to kill a swordsman he respects who was hired by the rival gang. At the end of the film Zatoichi throws away his cane-sword and gives up the life of a Yakuza assassin forever.
However, the film was so popular that a second movie, "Zuko Zatoichi Monogatari" [ The continuing tale of the low ranking blind man Ichi ] was made. Here Ichi, who has his cane sword back, returns to the grave of the rival swordsman he had killed in the last film to pay his respects and ends up being forced to kill his own brother by the same Yakuza boss that hired him a year before. The film ends with Ichi killing the boss in vengeance.
With the success of the second film, Daiei Studio decided to turn it into a full film series staring Katsu. The third film "Shin Zatoichi Monogatari" [ A new tale of the low ranking blind man Ichi ] was the first Zatoichi film in color and was followed by 19 other films. In each Zatoichi has given up his life as an assassin, even as Yakuza bosses are always trying to hire him. But he usually has the misfortune of wandering into a town menaced by an evil Yakuza boss or corrupt government official and always ends up wiping out them and their henchmen. On many occasions he would also run into a swordsman who vowed to be the one who would finally kill the now legendary Zatoichi and the film would end with a quick duel with Ichi the victor. As the series progressed Ichi soon had a price on his head by Yakuza gangs and was wanted by the law.
By 1967 Daiei studios was in financial trouble due to loosing customers to television. With them unable to fully finance many of the Zatoichi films, production was taken over by Shintaro Katsu himself with his company Katsu Productions and was sold back to Daiei for distribution. When Daiei Studios finally went bankrupt in 1970 the movies were sold to rival studio Toho for three more films, as well as the rights to the other Katsu produced films that had been formerly released by Daiei.
But by the 70's Japanese audiences wanted anti-heroes which by then Zatoichi wasn't. No longer able to sell his films to Toho, Katsu decided instead to take Zatoichi to television as a weekly series. One may wonder if the quality of the series dropped off with a smaller budget, hour long episodes, and the demand for a new story each week. And amazingly, the Zatoichi television series is just as good as the film series that preceded it. In fact many may prefer the television series. Since each episode is reduced from 85 to 55 minutes, you get to the climatic fight a lot sooner. Also since the plot has to be simplified to accommodate less characters, the films are easier to follow. Zatoichi movies usually have several plot lines that converge at the climax while the television shows usually have only one. And with exception to the absence of fountains of blood pouring out of Ichi's victims [ something only seen in the later movies ] the production quality is every bit as good as the movies. There are some episodes that reuse plots from the movies, but by the last few Toho films they were already recycling some of the earlier film plots.
The series lasted for 100 episodes before Katsu retired the character. The character came out of retirement 1989 in one last film for an independent studio called "Zatoichi".
Bringing Zatoichi to home video in the United States was not easy. "Zatoichi to Yojimbo" [ The low ranking blind man Ichi meets the Bodyguard ] was brought to VHS by Ventura Distribution in the 1990's, but from a poor quality film print. Around the same time Chambara Entertainment released several of the early Daiei films on VHS in a format called "Chambarama" where the letterbox was at the extreme top of the screen instead of the center. In the late 90's Janus Films bought the American distribution rights and for a while was going to release several Zatoichi titles on Laser-disc under the Criterion title. This was delayed because of the conversion from Laser-disc to DVD. AnimEigo, a home video company that originally distributed Japanese cartoons began securing the rights to several Japanese martial arts and swordplay films and was able to get the rights to the later Katsu production films from Toho. While they began releasing many of their Japanese swordplay films on Laser-disc including Katsu production's "Lone Wolf and Cub" series, they held off on the Zatoichi until they could get the rights to all the films and release them in order. But getting the rights was nearly impossible. Miramax had bought the rights to the 14th Zatoichi film "Zatoichi umi o wataru" [ Pilgrimage of the low level blind man Ichi ] to be remade in a possible American version of the series. [ This was the second attempt. Years earlier Tri-Star Pictures bought the rights to Zatoichi and reworked the character as a Viet-Nam veteran. The film, titled "Blind Fury", starred Rutger Hauer as the Americanized Zatoichi. No sequels were made. ] Because Miramax owned the rights to film #14 in able to keep the film from being released on home video in competition with their remake, no one would be able to release the whole series. Janus instead gave the series to Criterion's HVE division [ this was Criterion's no thrills line of DVDs that came with few extras and no commentary, but still offered high quality prints ] as well as selling the broadcast rights to the Independent Film Channel. There decision was to release each film in order with the episode number on the side of the box, skipping episodes #14 [ owned by Miramax ] and #16 [ which was owned by AnimEigo ]. AnimEigo decided to release their films without the episode numbers on the side of the box.
Tokyo Shock is the third DVD distributor to attempt to release the Zatoichi films. By the time they became interested all that was left was the 1989 film "Zatoichi". However, they were also able to get the rights to the full 100 episodes, and as they have announced that they will release them at 4 episodes per disc, then you can expect 25 volumes. With "Blind Fury" being released on DVD by Sony Pictures and the new Zatoichi film starring Takeshi Kitano as the lead [ Katsu died in 1997 of lung cancer ] being released on Miramax Home Entertainment, that leaves just movie episode #14. As it looks like no American film will be made you can probably expect it to be released by the end of next year.