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Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman(2003)
Zatôichi is a 19th century blind nomad who makes his living as a gambler and masseur. However, behind this humble facade, he is a master swordsman gifted with a lightning-fast draw and breathtaking precision. While wandering, Zatôichi discovers a remote mountain village at the mercy of Ginzo, a ruthless gang-leader. Ginzo disposes of anyone who gets in his way, especially after hiring the mighty samurai ronin, Hattori, as a bodyguard. After a raucous night of gambling in town, Zatôichi encounters a pair of geishas--as dangerous as they are beautiful--who've come to avenge their parents' murder. As the paths of these and other colorful characters intertwine, Ginzo's henchmen are soon after Zatôichi. With his legendary cane sword at his side, the stage is set for a riveting showdown.
For more about Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman and the Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman Blu-ray release, see Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on September 13, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Director: Takeshi Kitano (Beat Takeshi)
Writer: Takeshi Kitano (Beat Takeshi)
Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Michiyo Okusa, Yui Natsukawa, Guadalcanal Taka, Takeshi Kitano (Beat Takeshi)
» See full cast & crew
Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman Blu-ray Review
An award-winning fan-favorite falls short of greatness for this confounded filmfan...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, September 13, 2009
Some may favor the complex, breathtaking fights of modern martial arts masterpieces; some may enjoy watching skilled swordsmen whirl about in a fifteen minute dance of death to determine who deserves to limp away in one piece; some may prefer to witness grueling battles, rife with tension, that result in the climactic felling of a foe who makes a single, critical mistake. For anyone else, there are films like director Beat Kitano's Zatoichi, an at-times stunning oddity that revels in exhilarating one-strike kills, unforgettable split-second duels, and sudden and shocking fountains of blood that herald the arrival of the acclaimed blind swordmaster himself. Unfortunately, Kitano also grants his supporting cast far too much screentime, weaves too many bizarre eccentricities into an otherwise promising tale, and proudly wears his love of kabuki theatre all too prominently on his heavy sleeves.
Based on an iconic Japanese character featured in more than two-dozen films and a successful 100-episode television series, Zatoichi follows the exploits of its namesake, a blind swordsman (played by Kitano himself) who comes to the rescue of several small town residents struggling to survive a deadly gang war. In spite of his obvious disability, Zatoichi is a fierce fighter; one who isn't intimidated by the thugs and criminals threatening his new friends. However, the conflict has forced the gangs' leaders into hiding, leaving Zatoichi with little choice but to root them out before he can exact justice. As an added perk, uncovering their identities requires him to engage in one of his favorite pastimes: gambling. Standing in his way is an equally capable (and unexpectedly sympathetic) ronin named Hattori Genosuke (Tadanobu Asano), one of the few warriors the blind swordsman has encountered who can block his strikes. As Zatoichi hones in on those responsible for the turmoil, he leaves a trail of blood and wailing widows in his wake, determined to restore peace to a region besieged by corruption and villainy.
Kitano gets more right in his reimagining of Zatoichi than he gets wrong. His blind swordsman is as indelible a character as always (despite his newly bleached locks and crimson-handled cane) and benefits from the director's undeniably magnetic on-screen presence. While the film's fights can hardly be called fights (seeing as how quickly and efficiently opponents are dispatched), they're nevertheless a joy to watch. Fifteen-minute clashes may be impressive, but seeing a lone man make short work of a crowd of criminals is just as exciting. Kitano fuses his Zatoichi with enough raw skill and quiet confidence that it's hard to imagine anyone other than the director pulling it off with such wit and style. It helps that the central villain of the film -- Genosuke -- isn't a villain at all. Taking whatever work he can to pay for his sick wife's medical treatment, the ronin is as interesting, if not more so, than Kitano's title character. Both men have a sense of honor, both men wield their sword to save someone less fortunate, and both men understand, all too well, the nature of their conflict and the consequences of their actions. More importantly, the townsfolk Zatoichi fights for are as endearing as they are enigmatic. Each one is blessed with genuine heart and soul, transcending their one-note roots and emerging as fully fledged human beings as the drama unfolds. They're a ragtag bunch of oddballs to be sure (some are little more than comic relief), but I felt compassion and empathy for most all of them and understood Zatoichi's willingness to lend a helping sword.
That being said, the supporting characters are given too much attention. As much as I respect Kitano's decision to explore their origins and motivations, my interests lay with Zatoichi, not whichever bumbling innocent or stalwart warrior graced the director's imagination. With such focus devoted to subplot after subplot, side story after side story, the film's draws -- the blind swordsman and his masterless rival -- often get lost in the mix. Moreover, the townies who sometimes take center stage are strange. Too strange. I love quirks, I do, but only when they serve the essence of the character, not when they've been forcibly inserted solely to add humor or discomfort to a situation. The same goes for an extended, disconnected musical number that, quite frankly, goes on for far too long. I adore genre-bending surprises -- Takashi Miike's The Happiness of the Katakuris is a personal favorite that does just such a thing at least thirty-two times -- but only when each surprise enhances everything that's come before it. Kitano's dance sequence is jarring, distracting and, considering it comes after a particularly vicious series of deaths and maimings, a tonal disruption. As a climax, it's deflating; as a fitting denouement, it's fleeting; as a pointed technique, it lacks definition, substance, and purpose.
Zatoichi will either strike you as brilliant or uneven; as utterly unique or a hodgepodge of several sword-slinging genre pics. I can certainly see the appeal -- I found myself sinking into the blind swordsman's world on more than one occasion -- but I was reminded I was watching a movie, a flawed one at that, far too often to label it the astonishing insta-classic others have declared it to be. Perhaps I lack the proper understanding, perhaps the film's oddities have meaning I couldn't fully comprehend, but it doesn't change the fact that my enthusiasm for Kitano's vision rose and fell quite drastically over the course of its 116-minute runtime. Suffice to say, I would suggest renting this one before taking any further leaps.
Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman Blu-ray, Video Quality
Zatoichi slashes its way onto Blu-ray with an unfaithful, over-processed 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that has little regard for Kitano's directorial intentions, features contrast boosting that changes the film's palette, and suffers from enough edge enhancement and noise reduction to blind any videophile who looks too closely. Ironically, portions of the supplemental package are devoted to the exact aesthetic Kitano desired for his film; an aesthetic that isn't represented by the high definition presentation we see before us. It isn't a dramatic discrepancy -- fans readying their pitchforks shouldn't expect a Halloween-esque snafu -- but it is disheartening nonetheless. Unfortunately, the hits keep on coming. While colors are bold and black levels remain deep throughout, depth is flat on occasion and dimensionality is unreliable. And even though detail is much sharper than it is on the domestic and international DVD releases of the film, textures are sometimes smeared, ringing is a consistent issue, and clarity wavers depending on a variety of variables (shot-to-shot lighting chief among them). Likewise, the image is far cleaner than it's been before, but artifacting, banding, edge halos, and some minor crush still creep in and spoil the proceedings.
As it stands, those who crave a slick and shiny picture (and aren't sensitive to the side-effects of EE and DNR) will probably be pleased with the results. However, Zatoichi diehards and discerning videophiles will be shocked by how little respect the transfer technicians have paid to Kitano's work.
Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Imagine a furrowed brow thirtysomething tilting back his head, shaking his fist at the heavens and bellowing, "ENGLISH DUBS!!!" Picture that and you'll have a pretty good idea of my reaction to Disney's Ultimate Force of Four Collection lossy fiasco. Like its brethren, Zatoichi features a loud and gaudy DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track... in English. Its original Japanese language mix is presented with a flat and faulty Dolby Digital 5.1 track (640kbps) that lacks the finesse and power of its lossless counterpart. Admittedly, the differences aren't vast enough to completely dismiss the Dolby offering, but in this age of lossless milk and honey, there's absolutely no reason that the studio couldn't have granted Zatoichi two DTS-HD MA tracks. Ah well. Dialogue dominates the film, creating a rather front-heavy experience, but brief eruptions of sword-clashing violence boast enough LFE kick and rear speaker punch to keep things interesting. Prioritization is spot on, voices are intelligible, and ambience -- particularly during scenes in which the blind swordsman has to rely on his heightened senses -- is impressive. If only everything else was as admirable. Dynamics are a bit frothy, pans are occasionally stocky, directionality is inconsistent, and ambience appears and disappears at will. Ultimately, both tracks are decent but flawed, injecting too much disappointment into this release to warrant a higher score or stronger recommendation.
Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Blu-ray edition of Zatôichi includes a pair of meaty special features: an extensive, insightful, and revealing behind-the-scenes documentary (SD, 40 minutes) and an engaging collection of interviews (SD, 22 minutes) with cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima, production designer Norihiro Isoda, costume supervisor Kazuko Kurosawa, and master swordsman Tatsumi Nikamoto. Both offer English subtitles.
Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Alas, I enjoyed watching Zatoichi's behind-the-scenes documentary a bit more than the film itself. A promising production, Kitano's game-changing revision is brimming with potential, but sadly fails to cash in on its most compelling asset: the blind swordsman at the heart of Kitano's scattershot tale. The Blu-ray edition is problematic as well, cursing the film with an unfaithful video transfer, a lossy Japanese language track, and an all-too-short collection of special features that, as good as they are, only last an hour. No one -- fans, newcomers, or the curious among you -- will walk away from this one without complaining about something. Hardly the reaction the release of an award-winning film should inspire.
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