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Zatoichi Monogatari
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by Brian McKay

"Zatoichi: Vol. 1: The Tale of Zatoichi"
4 stars

Samurai fans may rejoice, now that the first eight episodes of the prolific ZATOICHI series have been made available on DVD (8 down, 18 to go). While the DVD's are lacking in any special features or commentaries (not surprisingly, since most of the people involved in the making of these films are now dead), at least you won't have to scour the foreign VHS sections of mom and pop video stores anymore to check out the adventures of the blind swordsman.

Played by Katsu Shintaro (Star of The Razor trilogy and producer of Lone Wolf and Cub series), Zatoichi is a wandering blind masseur, misleadingly humble and docile in appearance. However, within his walking cane he conceals a straight-edged Katana, which he unleashes with blinding speed and precision. Ichi's not the kind of guy to go looking for trouble (no pun intended), but trouble always seems to come to him.

Not content with the humble life of a mere masseur, Ichi decides to take up mastery of the sword. When some local Yakuza thugs see a demonstration of his skill, they want to put him on the payroll to use him against a rival gang. He reluctantly agrees, since he needs a few ryo and the odd stint of gambling or giving massages to surly samurai just aren't paying the bills. While war between the gangs is brewing, he passes the time fishing at the nearby river. One day he comes across Kanbei, a Ronin smitten with consumption who also likes to fish. The two strike up a friendship, only to discover that they have each been hired by one of the rival gangs as a "secret weapon" against the other, meaning that a final duel to the death is inevitable. Meanwhile, Ichi also befriends the lovely and spirited Otane' (Masayo Banri), the sister of a member of Ichi's gang who is trying to break up with a boyfriend from the rival gang. Ichi ends up protecting her from her jealous lover more than once, and she naturally reciprocates by falling in love with him and pledging marriage.

Falling somewhere between the stoic ultra-badness of Lone Wolf and Cub's Ogami Itto (played by Katsu's brother Wakayama Tomisaburo), and the sarcastic but good-hearted Yojimbo (Toshiro Mifune'), Katsu's portrays Ichi as one that is generally soft-spoken and easy going, avoiding fights whenever possible but never hesitating to respond in fury once the gauntlet is thrown down. He captures the mannerisms of a blind man quite well, from the hesitant gait to the squinting and heavily-lidded eyes. Only on occasion do these mannerisms seem a tad exaggerated, but never enough to shatter the suspension of disbelief. While these films lack the excesses of nudity and spurting arterial blood found in the Samurai films of the following decade, the choreography is effective and Katsu's moves are stunningly quick, rendering the fight scenes enjoyable even without all of the amputations or the added sound effects of slashing and clanging swords.

Considering how few Samurai flicks have been released on DVD so far, the restoration of the ZATOICHI series is a welcome event. Hopefully the full series will eventually be released, or at the very least up to episode 20, where the famed meeting takes place between Zatoichi and Yojimbo.

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originally posted: 05/31/03 09:18:13
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User Comments

6/02/10 brian Not as artistic as Kurosawa's films, but just as entertaining and memorable. 4 stars
11/21/05 MikeJJ This whole series is a gem! Look out for the release of the fine tv series from Media Blast 5 stars
8/18/03 Denise Hill This movie hooked me on the series 5 stars
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  18-Apr-1962 (NR)



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