The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (Blu-ray)
Directed by Takeshi Kitano
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 116 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English; Dolby Digital 5.1 Japanese, 2.0 Spanish
Subtitles: English, Spanish
MSRP: $ 39.99
Release Date: September 15, 2009
Review Date: September 11, 2009
Though there may be one or two too many stories rummaging around the confines of Takeshi Kitano’s masterful The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, their presence doesn’t for a moment spoil an otherwise intensely entertaining though massively brutal samurai tale for the 21st century. With an intriguing set of characters, generous helpings of humor amid the carnage, and some intense fight scenes, this movie gives an action audience just about everything it could want, and for good measure, the star-director-writer throws in some cagily handled rhythmic sequences and even a full blown slaphappy tap production number to wrap things up. Not many movies outside of Bollywood would dare serve up that kind of eclectic mix.
Based on an ancient Japanese legend, Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano) is a 19th century blind nomad who makes his living as a gambler and masseur. However, behind this seemingly peaceful facade, he is a master swordsman gifted with a lightning-fast draw and unerring precision. Zatoichi comes upon a remote mountain village at the mercy of Ginzo (Ittoku Kishibe), a ruthless gang-leader who has recently employed the seemingly unbeatable ronin Hattori (Tadanobu Asano) as his personal bodyguard. After a successful night of gambling with persistent loser Shinkichi (Guadalcanal Taka) in town, Zatoichi comes upon a pair of geishas (Yuko Daike, Daigoro Tachibana) who've come to avenge their parents' murder. As the paths of these characters intertwine, a fight to the finish among these vengeful folk seems inevitable.
The enormously talented Takeshi Kitano has taken on the mammoth task of writing, directing, and performing in this epic saga, and he triumphs on every level. If he’s crowded his screenplay with so many characters like the geishas and the ronin whose backstories absolutely must be told, he does a good job sorting things out for them so that the film doesn’t get bogged down in too much minutia. He also manages to save some surprises for the film’s closing minutes that should astound even fans of the legendary character’s saga. Kitano’s sense of rhythm takes on impressive luster in a couple of cleverly staged sequences where the tilling of land and the building of a house are set to pulsating percussive tracks on the soundtrack, and that tap dance finale number comes out of nowhere and must be seen to be believed. Elsewhere, the director proves himself no shrinking violet when it comes to the massive carnage that explodes throughout the film’s 116-minute running time. Sprays of blood are everywhere as the title character as well as the sadistic ronin and the vengeful geishas seek out their victims with singular skill, and the director shows his artist’s eye by photographing the combat aftermaths as if they were paintings.
The performances take one by surprise with their quiet power and easy grace. Takeshi Kitano’s title character walks away with every one of his scenes with such calm authority and control that many of the world’s actors should watch and take a lesson. No less assured is Tadanobu Asano who’s menacing ronin Hattori masks his venal nature with the sly smile and stillness of a coiled and ready-to-strike cobra. Guadalcanal Taka scores major laughs as the easily lead gambler and wastrel while Yuko Daike and especially Daigoro Tachibana as the geishas have surprises in store for those who fall victim to their wiles. Ittoku Kishibe, Saburo Ishikura, and Akira Emoto make their own firm impressions as villains the protagonists must inevitably face.
The film has been framed at 1.85:1 and is delivered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Without making an ostentatious display of its superlative encode, the transfer is superb in sharpness and exquisite detail. The silver retention photography has given the colors a softer look, but that doesn’t prevent the image from sporting outstanding dimensionality and excellent black levels. The white subtitles are wonderfully legible. The film has been divided into 20 chapters.
Though the Blu-ray does have a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English-dubbed track, I opted with this film to watch in the original language which is represented on the disc with a lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 kbps) sound mix. The soundstage is alive with all manner of ambient sounds, and there is even some directionalized dialogue though most of it is rooted to the center channel. When the thunderstorms kick in and later on when the tap dancing begins with a cast of sixty, there’s full support in all the available channels and good use of the LFE channel for added impact. Had the original soundtrack been given a proper lossless encoding, the audio rating would have been a perfect score.
All of the bonus features are presented in 480i.
A behind the scenes documentary on the making of the movie covers all of the expected territory. Done in the form of a production diary covering the five week shooting schedule, the featurette begins with the press conference announcing the commencement of production and goes right through extensive fight rehearsals and right into shooting culminating with the film’s triumph at the Venice Film Festival where it won Best Director for Takeshi Kitano and the Audience Favorite Golden Lion prize. The feature runs 40 minutes.
Four interviews with crucial members of the production team are available for individual viewing. Those interviewed include the cinematographer (4 ½ minutes), the production designer (5 ¾ minutes), the costume supervisor (7 minutes), and the film’s master swordsman (4 ½ minutes).
There are 1080p trailers for Adventureland, Lost, and The Proposal.
4/5 (not an average)
An entertaining and unique samurai saga about one of Japan’s most legendary heroes, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi may be a trifle overlong and just occasionally a bit sluggish in juggling its many stories and backstories, but this outstanding Blu-ray release is certainly one that receives an enthusiastic recommendation.