This was the final of Miramax 4 martial arts classics released as a collection or separately on Blu-ray. The collection featured some extraordinary action and top line star power for the most part. Zatoichi, for the most part, is the weakest of the four films. It is almost a solo effort by renowned Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano. He participated in writing the script. He is also the director, editor, and star of this rather off the wall martial arts film. The character of Zatoichi has appeared in many films and is as much a part of martial arts culture as Jackie Chan. Kitano does quite a superb job in portraying the blind swordsman, but it is in the other areas that he falls considerably short of the intended mark. Instead of reaching for the classic staples of the genre, he decides to take this tale in a far more fantastical direction. Swords blaze with such speed it’s impossible to really appreciate the skills, because you never actually see the sword. It’s out, slice and dice, and resheathed all in a blink of an eye. Rather impressive the first 20 times it occurs in the film, but before long it’s merely an old punch line that’s been repeated one too many times by a desperate comedian who doesn’t really have anything else. It’s sad, really. Because, Kitano does have something else to offer, and we certainly get glimpses of that. In the end, however, Kitano pushes the boundaries too often for me to take this film seriously at all.
The film is really a Western guised in the form of a martial arts film. The plot rings of Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter. When a blind masseur wonders into a village, he finds that it has been terrorized by a gang that extorts shop owners for protection and runs the local gambling and geisha houses. The blind drifter has startling skill with a sword he hides sheathed in his seeing eye cane. He has an uncanny ability to hear enough from his environment to counter any blow raised toward him and cut up his opponent quickly and quite efficiently. He meets up with Genosuke (Asano) who supplies the comic relief here. Genosuke is a degenerate gambler who can’t seem to catch a break in the local dice parlor. But he is impressed with the uncanny ability the masseur has of hearing the correct lay of the dice. The two of them clean up at the game. Deciding to spend some of their winnings at the geisha house, the pair meet two geisha girls who are actually more than meets the eye. They are the sole surviving children of a family slaughtered by the mob kingpin running the local gang. Together they plot to discover the identity of the boss and rid the village of the gang forever. The gang has employed the services of a very skilled samurai to enforce their will on the people. It doesn’t take much time to figure out that all of this is leading to a wild west style showdown between the samurai and the masseur.
Did the martial art film form influence Quentin Tarantino, or did Tarantino influence the martial arts movies? It’s the classic chicken or the egg dilemma, and this film is a classic example of that question. I can’t help but think of the crazy sword play we witnessed in the Kill Bill films. This movie employs much the same extreme dice and slice that movie gave us. The blood is almost comical after a very short while. It gushes liberally and body limbs fly with the greatest of ease. One of the best and most striking examples is a fight in the dice house. The shaker’s hand is severed in the most graphic and almost amusing fashion. No question that Tarantino fans will absolutely love this film.
There is further no question that the movie is indeed a very entertaining affair. The problem is in the pacing and the fact that it is overlong at just under two hours. There really isn’t much of a plot beyond the activities of these thugs and the masseur’s quiet but deadly exploits. We all know that it’s basically killing time before we get to the face off we knew was coming 10 minutes into the movie. Once it comes, the swift fighting ends it all too quickly, and we feel there was too much ado over nothing. But, wait! There’s still nearly 15 minutes of film remaining after the last battle. You know, The Godfather couldn’t end until Michael had his revenge on all the heads of the 5 families. Kitano has his hands full with just the one, but there’s a rather pointless epitaph that has him going through suspects to reach the big boss, and again we’re not talking much of a fight in the end. Finally, the film contains a drum and dance routine that takes up over half of that final 15 minutes. One of the characters remarks that nothing lasts forever just before Kitano cuts him down. That might be true, but watching the end of this film made me call that axiom into question.
With any of these films, I’m aware that much can be lost in the translation and that the English language version can be a very different film. That isn’t the base problem here at all. Kitano is a one man show who is showing off too much. Ironically, his character is a humble man who doesn’t need to show off.
Zotoichi is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at via an AVC/MPEG-4 codec. The film is a brilliant piece of work in high definition. Not near as wonderful as Hero, it still holds up very well to this level of detail and scrutiny. There is a perfect blend of grain and sharpness to make the film quite crisp and clear, yet always appear organic and alive. The color is often remarkably vivid; in fact, in the case of the blood, it is almost too vivid. I know it’s the style, and we’ve seen it often enough by now. Still, for me it turns the film into a comic book, and perhaps that is the intended effect. I don’t know. I also don’t know what the film looked like in any of its other forms or releases, but I don’t believe a DVD could have come anywhere close to this kind of a presentation. If you love this film, there is simply no choice left to you at all. You haven’t seen it yet until now.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track is pretty solid for what it needs to do. I opted for the English language version here, so the dialog does tend to stand out and not fit the ambiance of the film. When you watch a movie this way, expectations for the audio have to be lowered considerably. You have to accept that likely nothing sounds like it was originally intended to sound. Where you get the best ear candy is the sounds of the swords. They clang and ring with crystal like clarity, particularly coming in and out of sheaths. The gushing sounds of blood and limbs getting severed is also a somewhat artificially heightened affair here. No chance of subtlety here.
Behind The Scenes Special: (39:55) Kitano takes us on a detailed look at the production of the film. It begins with a press conference announcing the film and then takes us on a step by step journey through the actual production.
Video Interviews: (21:29) There are four in all, and they can be played with one of those trusty play all options. They cover costumes, sword training, and cinematography. All are in Japanese with English subtitles.
Some say that this is the modern martial arts film style, precluding the possibility that it can exist with the more classic art form. I’m told that they are two very different films, again calling in the question of influence. I might have agreed with that had I not recently had the pleasure of seeing Hero in high definition as well. I’m convinced that the two can live in perfect harmony if the right skill is applied to the process. I’d very much like to see more martial arts filmmakers attempt to bring them together in a way that satisfies both audiences. “Objections?”