Zatoichi: TV Series, Volume One
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A threat is uttered, a blade is drawn, a flash of cold steel and then...
A dozen attackers now lie silent, dispatched by the lightening sword of one blind man: Zatoichi.
A humble masseur and gambler, Zatoichi wanders the countryside of early Japan, going from town to town playing his trade and rolling the dice. With kind heart and lethal sword skill, he is protector of the innocent and the ruin of wicked men.
A pop culture icon since his screen debut in 1962, Zatoichi (played by samurai film legend Shintaro Katsu) was a matinee favorite throughout the 1960s. After a dozen years and 25 films, the blind swordsman transitioned to the small screen in 1974. 100 episodes of the popular series aired through the end of the decade, as the television program, Zatoichi Monogatari or The Tale of Zatoichi. Media Blasters is proud to present Season One of this renowned series for the first time on DVD.
1: A Challenge Of Chance
2: The Flower That Bloomed With The Lullaby
3: A Memorial Day And The Bell of Life
4: The Kannon Statue That Was Tied
5: The Heartless Man, Touched By Compassion
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Top Customer Reviews
A humble master swordsman, Zatoichi is a conflicted character, blessed with great skill, but cursed with having to destroy life again and again to mete out justice on the frontiers of ancient Japan.
My fav episode, Memorial Day and the Bell of Life, is like a classic Western, simmering throughout before coming to a searing boil at the end.
Quality is a bit grainy due to the original analog medium, but this TV series is recommended for any fans of the samurai genre.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
here's a review of the episodes:
Episode 1: A Challenge of Chance (46 min)
Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) visits the mining village of Ashido where a cold and calculating yakuza boss named Yasaburo is forcing the locals out of their businesses and jobs. He joins an aging sword master once known as Tatsu the Sword Thrower in aiding Oshin, a young female in protecting her business from Yasaburo and his henchmen. Ichi's biggest challenge is in figuring out how to keep from getting shot by a rifleman in Yasaburo's employ.
Episode 2: The Flower that Bloomed with the Lullaby (47 min)
Ichi befriends Taro, a small boy selling persimmons to pay for his ailing grandfather's medicine. It comes to light that the boy is the son of a wealthy silk merchant and Ichi agrees to escort him home. But a local yakuza boss is after a reward for the boy's return, as is Inosuke, an unemployed gambling dealer who convinces his wife to stall Ichi's progress while he arranges to collect the reward.
Episode 3: A Memorial Day and the Bell of Life (47 min)
Ichi puts a stop to an attack by hired ronin on a rival yakuza family, saving the frightened son but not his widowed mother. He also spares the life of Monji, a grateful ronin who begins following Ichi. Monji attempts to prod Ichi into a duel, but the blind swordsman has vowed not to draw his sword for 12 hours on this day in memory of his dead mother. As Monji bides his time, the two strike an unlikely bond as they encounter the daughter of a ronin killed by Ichi and help the widow's son take revenge.
Episode 4: The Kannon Statue that was Tied (47 min)
A corrupt official takes advantage of two rival yakuza families feuding over the planned relocation of a sacred Jizu statue by taking money from both and plotting their destruction. A petty conman also steps forth to convince one of the yakuza bosses that he knows Zatoichi and can get the notorious blind swordsman to help their cause. It's a lie so he sets out to convince the first anma (masseuse) he finds to act the part. Little does he know that his first choice is the real Ichi. Ichi's thoughts are preoccupied by other concerns, however, specifically in helping a young woman recently released from prison reunite with her three-year old daughter.
Episode 5: The Heartless Man, Touched by Compassion (47 min)
Ichi meets a streetwise young boy, whose drunken father has accumulated debts that may force the boy's elder sister to be sold into prostitution. Ichi steps in to pay back the debt through gambling, but the greedy father strikes a deal with the yakuza that puts both his children and Ichi in trouble. If that's not bad enough, Ichi finds himself forced to duel a skilled and righteous swordsman, who is desperately trying to raise enough money to pay for medical treatment to restore his sister's sight.Not much needs to be said about the series' writing. It's up to par with the feature films and actually seems to work better on the small screen. Zatoichi was always episodic in nature, which makes it a perfect fit for an ongoing TV series. All the writers did was trim the fat. One slight disappointment is a lack of any reoccurring characters beyond Ichi and any sort of evolving relationship that could go with them. With 90 minutes, there's time enough to keep introducing new characters, but cut that in half and the writing has to get creative to flesh out characters. Amazingly, it gets done through a variety of techniques, but it only amplifies Ichi's drifter lifestyle and general alienation.
Before I bought this DVD I was a bit apprehensive. I wondered if Zatoichi could make the transfer to the small screen smoothly or if it would be a bumpier ride than the smooth polish of the films I was accustomed to. HVE and Animeigo (I haven't checked out Tokyo Shock's Zatoichi film yet) did a tremendous job making everything look so crisp and the cinematography, while not awe-inspiring, was always beautiful in general. When you take into account the U.S.'s various failed attempts in transferring movies to television (M.A.S.H being a notable exception) you can imagine the trepidation I was feeling.
When I finally got the DVD I already had another caveat with it. Being the spoiled fan of other TV on DVD releases I was expecting at least half the episodes from the first season (Not all of them, since I DID notice it said "Vol. 1" on the case) as opposed to the five episodes in the two DVDs. I initially was surprised that it was only 30 bucks, but when I finally got the DVD it made a lot more sense.
Playing the first episode, I was immediately hit with some more uneasiness as Tokyo Shock (very kindly I might add) has a disclaimer that runs beforehand warning the viewer that due to the TV prints being so old that there was some poorness to the overall video quality. Afterward, I noticed that this was indeed true. There are some scratches and lines in the film itself, but I found myself to be quite comfortable with it after the initial surprise. In fact, the graininess of the picture quality actually enhances the enjoyment of the television show. Zatoichi's tales aren't your standard, polished sort of jidei geki films and the grittiness of Zatoichi's world seems to shine through with the degraded picture, giving a sort of "down and dirty" artistic quality.
Enough of all that "picture quality" stuff though, how is the actual show itself? It's about everything you would expect from Zatoichi and more. I found myself loving every single episode on the two disks and the episodes have a variability from each other to markedly set them apart. The transfer from film to television has also had no adverse effect on Shintaro Katsu's performance of Zatoichi, or the action in the slightest. Each episode has its share of humor, drama, and heartbreak in each episodes 45 minute run time (my favorite of which is Episode 3, which features Zatoichi's attempt to make it through a whole day without using his cane sword as a promise to his dead mother). Considering the fact that you get 5 of these episodes for 30 dollars when most actual Zatoichi films can run you anywhere from 17.99 to 25.99, purchasing this DVD is a no-brainer. While it isn't a whole slew of episodes in one set, it's hard to argue with what you get. In fact, I find myself liking the fact that each volume has a limited number of episodes. It makes each volume more affordable and gives you something to look forward to.
In the end, if you love Zatoichi (and even if you have, sadly, never heard of him) and don't mind a little picture degradation, then you will absolutely love this DVD.
The series features many well-known character actors, many of whom Katsu brought along with him, as well as the same screenwriters and directors of the feature films -- but you wouldn't know that from the DVD packaging. Directors Kimiyoshi Yasuda and Kenji Misumi deftly handle the material, scaled down to the small screen, but with big screen panache and style -- even though shot in 16mm -- subtle compositions and smart editing adorn this series. The evocative and eerie score is provided by the amazing Isao Tomita (CATASTROPHE: 1999, ZATOICHI MEETS THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN).
Pick up the ZATOICHI: THE TELEVISION SERIES DVDs, because if sales are good, Media Blasters promises to release all 100 episodes of this classic and sterling television series. We should thank our lucky stars, because the series has yet to be released in Japan on DVD.
#1: "A CHALLENGE OF CHANCE." In this first TV episode, Ichi encounters a stranger while traveling. They both set off for Ashido village. The name of the stranger is Tatsuzo. They soon part ways when Ichi hears gunshots. There is a copper mine in this village and the usual corrupt government official and yakuza thugs make things difficult for the villagers. There is a great scene where Ichi is burying the body of a man he has come across on his way to this village, and the local yakuza interfere and will soon be joining this deceased man. The stranger that Ichi met, Tatsuzo, tells Ichi that he is the famed "Tatsuzo the Sword-Thrower." And both Tatsuzo and Ichi will be plying their trade in swords as the film comes to a close. Not a great episode, but average to above average. [Stars: 3.5]
#2: "THE FLOWER THAT BLOOMED WITH THE LULLABY." Great sound from the shimasen opens up this good episode of the TV series. Plus, a bit of humor with Ichi climbing up a tree at the request of a young boy make this episode humorous, sad, and dramatic all in one. The boy is named Tarokichi, and he will have a major role in the film. There are some great scenes with Ichi gambling with picture plate-cards, and the yakuza gamblers who think the blind Ichi is stupid. However, he turns the tables on them very quickly. Moreover, Ichi has been asked to turn the boy over to his father, as the mother has died. Ichi goes on a journey to hand the boy over to his father, and in the process is followed by yakuza who want the reward, and a former gambler and his lover. This is a decent drama and entry to the TV series. [Stars: 4]
#3: "A MEMORIAL DAY AND THE BELL OF LIFE." In this great episode, Ichi refuses to draw his sword on the anniversary of his mothers death. It is in here memory that he will not shed blood for 12 hours. In the opening shot, Ichi is giving a massage to a woman who wants he son to succeed the now deceased father. But the young man does not want a life of violence. However, something occurs in the beginning of this household which will draw Ichi into a very perilous 12 hour wait. Moreover, there is a ronin who wishes to kill Ichi, but the ronin knows Ichi will not draw his sword until six o'clock in the evening. Therefore, this ronin follows Ichi around. Plus, you have the usual vile yakuza boss trying to take over the territory. There is good drama in this episode, with Ichi displaying very quick speed with his cane sword. [Stars: 5+]
#4: "THE KANNON STATUE THAT WAS TIED." Great opening of this episode as Ichi plays catch with a blowing leaf on the ground with his cane sword. Ichi run into a woman who is tying up a Kannon statue. [Hence the title of the film]. This film centers on two areas: the fighting over the rights to claim a Jizo statue, and this womans search for her child. The warring yakuza clans are fighting in order to have the Jizo stature placed in their territory, as every three months there is a festival, and whomever has the Jizo statue will have the customers coming to gamble in their territory. As for the woman, she was wronged and spent many years in prison. She has now come to find her child. This episode has good drama and great action--and is enhanced by the beautiful cinematography. And then there is the corrupt and evil government official who is playing both sides against each other. [Stars: 5+]
#5: "THE HEARTLESS MAN, TOUCHED BY COMPASSION." Ichi meets a young boy walking a horse in this episode, and is offered a ride to the outpost Ichi is headed to. Along the way, they come across a man being beaten. The boy claims this is his father. Ichi stops the men yakuza thugs from beating the man, and helps him on the horse. Meanwhile, a group of ronin have arrived in the village Ichi is headed to and are immediately dispatched by a ronin who is good with sword. Moreover, this ronin has a sister who is blind. There is a clan fight going on in this particular village, and as usual, Ichi gets caught up in the fighting. This is a great episode with some spectacular sword fighting on Ichi's part. The ending of this final episode of Volume 1, is great, and the entire films series is too for that matter. [Stars: 5]
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