Zatoichi 1: The Tale of Zatoichi (Zatoichi Monogatari) [DVD]
Screenplay : Minoru Inuduka (story by Kan Shimozawa)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1962
Stars : Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Masayo Banri (Ootane), Ryuzo Shimada (Shigezo of Sasakawa), Hajime Mitamura (Hanji of Matsugishi), Shigeru Amachi (Hirate, Miki), Chitose Maki (Yoshi), Ikuko Mori (Yutaka), Michio Minami (Tatekichi), Eijiro Yanagi (Sukegoro of Iioka)
Zatoichi was the Lone Ranger of Japanese cinema, a noble character who proved to be so popular that he starred in 25 movies from 1962 to 1973, as well as a revival movie in 1989 and a TV series that lasted for more than 100 episodes during the 1970s. Played by actor Shintaro Katsu, who became as identified with the role as Clayton Moore was with the role of the Lone Ranger in the 1950s, Zatoichi is a blind swordsman who works as a masseur and wanders through 19th-century feudal Japan. Essentially a nonviolent man, he only resorts to his incomparable skills at wielding a blade when absolutely necessary, a reluctant hero who nonetheless finds himself engaged in adventure after adventure.
The first film in the series, The Tale of Zatoichi (Zatoichi Monogatari, aka The Life and Opinion of Masseur Ichi) does not tell Zatoichi's origin story (we don't find out, for instance, why he is blind), but serves as an introduction to the character. Being handicapped and working as a masseur assures Zatoichi's place at the lowest rungs of the rigid feudal class system, and as the film's opening moments show, many try to take advantage of his disability.
However, Zatoichi has more up his sleeve than most imagine; not only is an expert swordsman, but he is also something of a hustler, a slick gambler who allows others to think they are taking advantage of a poor blind man before winning all their money. "Don't think I'm a fool just because I'm blind," he warns. Fiercely intelligent and bearing almost uncanny sensory perception (particularly his hearing), Zatoichi seems harmless at first (particularly since Shintaro Katsu is somewhat round and soft in appearance, rather than lean and mean), but is anything but.
When the film opens, Zatoichi has gone to visit an acquaintance in a small village, only to find himself caught in an escalating turf war between two yakuza gangs. The man he is visiting, Sukegoro (Eijiro Yanagi), is a well-heeled gangster who wants to use Zatoichi's skills to his own advantage. Zatoichi resists, rightfully reserving violence for defense and honor, not gain. But, when Sukegoro's rival, Shigezo (Ryuzo Shimada), hires a ronin samurai, Hirate (Shigeru Amachi), to aid in the battle, Zatoichi finds himself reluctantly drawn into the escalating conflict.
Because it is the introductory film in the series, The Tale of Zatoichi takes its time setting up the characters and situations. In fact, writer Minoru Inuduka (who wrote or cowrote six of the Zatoichi films) and director Kenji Misumi (who helmed five other films in the series) seem more intent on establishing Zatoichi's character traits than they are on working out a plot and supplying action. Although there is plenty of well-choreographed swordplay in the film's final 15 minutes, the preceding hour is almost entirely action-free, relying on the drama of Zatoichi's growing friendship with Hirate, against whom he will eventually have to fight, as well as his resistance of the affections of Ootane (Masayo Banri), a village woman who falls in love with him despite his handicap and low social standing, both of which he feels makes him unworthy of her love. You can sense that Shintaro Katsu is working his way through the character of Zatoichi, finding the balance between his honor and his humanity, not to mention his penchant for coming off as a tad condescending.
The Tale of Zatoichi serves as a good introduction to the character, establishing his major traits and offering a worthwhile narrative that engages what became one of his hallmarks, the agonized decision of when to use violence to solve problems. Some may find the proceedings a bit slow, especially those expecting a wall-to-wall action-packed samurai flick. The Tale of Zatoichi has its share of action, but it is rooted in character development and moral decision making, something too many action-adventure films are sorely lacking.
|Zatoichi 1: The Tale of Zatoichi DVD|
|Audio||Japanese Dolby 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||May 14, 2002|
| 2.35:1 (Nonanamorphic) |
A lot of dedicated fans of the Zatoichi series have been eagerly awaiting these films' release on DVD, but it is my unfortunate job to report that the transfer on this first disc is a let-down. Although the cover boasts a "fully restored image," it was transferred in nonanamorphic widescreen, resulting in an image that is soft, although it is almost spotless in terms of nicks, scratches, and dirt. The lack of anamorphic enhancement restricts the detail level, particularly given the film's narrow Daieiscope aspect ratio of 2.35:1. There is also a distracting amount of artifacting that seems to suggest the transfer was made from a video master, rather than film elements. The black and white image has little in the way of contrast; rather than sharp blacks and whites, the image is grayed out and a bit fuzzy, which makes it particularly difficult to follow the action in the darkest sequences. Viewers will also notice that the framing is extremely tight along the top, often cropping off parts of characters' heads, although I am not sure whether this was a result of the original cinematography or the transfer.
|Japanese Dolby 1.0 Monaural|
The original one-channel soundtrack shows its age, although it is not particularly distracting. There are a number of dull pops here and there and some ambient hiss, but nothing unexpected.
| Stills Gallery|
Contains half a dozen black-and-white stills from the film.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick