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The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

September 14, 2009 by  



“A wonderful, modern take on samurai films that Takeshi Kitano leaves his style and mark on.  Exciting, fresh, gritty and highly enjoyable!   ‘The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi’ gets its High Definition treatment but misses out on perfection with only a lossless English dub audio track, while the original Japanese is in Dolby Digital 5.1.

Images courtesy of © WDSHE. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi

DURATION: 116 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition (1:85:1), English 5.1 DTS-HD (48 kHz/24-bit), Japanese 5.1 Dolby Digital, Spanish 2.0 Dolby Digital

COMPANY:  Miramax Films

RATED: R (for Strong Stylized Bloody Violence)

Release Date: September 15, 2009

Directed by Takeshi Kitano

Based on a noel by Kan Shimosawa

Screenplay by Takeshi Kitano

Produced by Jack Maeby, Masayuki Mori, Tsunehisa Saito

Co-Produced by Masanori Sanada, Takio Yoshida

Line Producer: Shinji Komiya

Planner: Chieko Saito

Music by Keiichi Suzuki

Cinematography by Katsumi Yanagijima

Edited by Takeshi Kitano, Yoshinori Ota

Casting by Takefumi Yoshikawa

Production Design by Norihiro Isoda

Costume Design by Yohji Yamamoto

Starring:

Takeshi Kitano as Zatoichi

Tadanobu Asano as Hattori Genosuke

Michiyo Ookusu as Aunt Oume

Gadarukanaru Taka as Shinkichi

Daigoro Tachibana as Geisha Seitaro ‘Osei’ Naruto

Yui Natsukawa as O-shino, Hattori’s Wife

Ittoku Kishibe as Boss Inosuke Ginzo

Saburo Ishikura as Boss Tashichi Ogi

Akira Emoto as Tavern Owner Pops

Ben Hiura as Tavern Gramps

Kohji Miura as Lord Sakai

The highly stylized samurai classic Zatoichi shines with pristine picture and theater-quality sound on Blu-ray Disc. Directed by Takeshi Kitano (winner of Venice Film Festival’s 2003 Special Director’s Award), Zatoichi is the film the Chicago Tribune called “a masterpiece of wry violence and stylish mayhem.” Now, experience this wildly entertaining tale of revenge on Blu-ray, packed with thrilling bonus features, including a behind-the-scenes special and video interviews with cast and crew.

In an empire ruled by fear, the people’s only hope is the ultimate weapon: Zatoichi a blind, nomadic samurai whose sword has made him a hero and whose courage has made him a legend. Zatoichi was written and directed by Japanese cinema legend Takeshi Kitano (Battle Royale), who also stars as Japanese folk hero Zatoichi. Praised by critics, Zatoichi won the coveted People’s Choice Award at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival and four awards (including the Audience Award) at the 2003 Venice Film Festival.

A modernized samurai film and who best to create such a film that would appeal on a worldwide level, what better than  Takeshi Kitano aka Takeshi Beat.

“The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi” is written and directed by Takeshi Kitano and is based on the novels by Kan Shimosawa.  The film would go on to win many awards worldwide and receive positive reviews amongst the critics but would achieve success because of its modern-take on the samurai genre.  Needless to say, Kitano fans have been waiting for another brilliant film from the popular actor/director and the film definitely received worldwide respect.

In Japan, Takeshi Kitano is one of those talents that can be seen on television via a variety show, a serious talk show and radio show and mostly a comedic talent that is known for making people laugh or bringing out subjects that people in Japan, often don’t want talk about.  But a a filmmaker, Kitano is world renown.  From his role in “Taboo”, “Hana-bi”, “Battle Royale”, “Brother” and “Dolls”.

Known for also being tough in his yakuza-genre based films, he also shown his resilience after bouncing back from a nearly fatal motorcycle accident that paralyzed one side of his boy.

Although a celebrated filmmaker, Kitano is known to do things his way and his style and in 2003, he intended to do just that for a samurai film based on Shintaro Katsu’s “Zatoichi” TV series.  But again, in Kitano’s style and not redoing things that people have already seen in the TV series.  To give his own spin and also to not make things serious by utilizing CG-blood, Kitano would also have blonde hair and most interesting is that the film included a dance number at the end of the film.

“The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi” features Takeshi Kitano as Zatoichi, a samurai who is blind but wanders around the country using his senses to win at gambling and also his skills as a masseuse.  But he’s also, a samurai with tremendous skills and is a man who is known to protect the innocent and those who have been hurt or oppressed.

In this film, he enters a town which has suffered from the various Yakuza gangs and business owners are expected to pay them from monthly to weekly for “protection money”.  Unfortunately, a lot of these business owners are unable to afford to live with the earnings minus what they owe to the Yakuza and if they try to stand up to the Yakuze, they are either killed or beaten.

One of the women who has dealt with the Yakuza is Aunt Oome (Michiyo Ookusu) who has taken Zatoichi into her home temporarily.

Meanwhile, we learn of a talented ronin samurai named Hattori Genosuke (Tadanobu Asano) who has a wife that is sick and willing to take any job.   Desperate in trying to make money to pay for medicine, he takes a job as an assassin for one of the Yakuza gangs (who are planning to eliminate the other two gangs and take sole control of the financial resources).

One night, Aunt Oome talks about the Yakuza’s who try to take money from the farmers and also about her nephew Shinkichi who is a hardcore gambler.  With Zatoichi being a big gambler himself, he wants to check out the various gambling spots in town.  He manages to meet Shinkichi at the gambling area but also surprises him by his wins through using his heightened senses and the two end up becoming friends.

While the two continue to gamble, we are then introduced to two Geisha named Osei (Daigoro Tachibana) and Geisha Okinu (Yuko Daike) who appear to be geisha’s that commit murder.

While becoming lucky at the gambling hall, both Zatoichi and Shinkichi go to celebrate their winnings and eventually look for some fun visiting various geisha but instead hook up with the two murdering Geisha’s but Zatoichi quickly senses that these two are not who they think they are.

We learn that both geisha are actually brother and sister who want revenge after the Yakuza who killed their entire family.  Due to circumstances, the four may end up needing to team up with each other, as each become targets of the Yakuza.

But for Zatoichi, he has heard enough of the oppression by this Yakuza group and the target becomes the Yakuza.

VIDEO & AUDIO:

“The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi” is presented in 1080p High Definition (1:85:1) and comes with mix results.  Disney Blu-rays are typically known for their quality picture and audio quality but “Zatoichi” has been DNR’d (digital noise reduction) but not excessively.

Also, there are signs of edge enhancement as well and makes you wonder if the original film was in bad shape.  Nevertheless, it would have been nice to have a more detailed image quality with its original grain but nevertheless, the picture quality is not vibrant as I have hoped.  But for the most part, picture quality leans more to good than great.

As for audio quality, this is a heart-breaker as this is another film released by Disney that only the English dubbed track is featured in lossless DTS-HD quality (48 kHz/24-bit).  Granted, the film’s English dub is actually quite good and I found it interesting that even during the dub, the voice talent tend to pronounce some Japanese words with the R and L’s and even adding the silent “u” after certain words.  But compared to other Asian films that have been released via English dub, this one is one of the best (along with “HERO”).

With the lossless track, some scenes utilize surround during the rain scenes but for the most part, the film is a front and center channel driven film.  Dialogue and music is clear and the ending dance performance really features a wonderful musical soundtrack.

But for many of us who enjoy Asian films, we prefer to watch the film in its original language and unfortunately the Japanese is only featured in 5.1 Dolby Digital (Spanish 2.0 Dolby Digital is also included).  It would have been nice to hear this film in its original language via lossless but at least it was offered.

SPECIAL FEATURES

“The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi” comes with the following two special features (in 480i, English 2.0 Dolby Digital, English SDH and Spanish subtitles):

  • Behind-the-Scenes Special – (35:55) An informative behind-the-scenes featurette showing the viewers of the first press conference, shooting throughout the various weeks from start to finish and then the premiere of the films at the film festivals.  Featuring interviews with director/writer/actor Takeshi Kitano and the cast members.
  • Exclusive Interviews with Crew – Featuring individual interviews with Katsumi Yanagishima (Cinematographer), Norihiro Isoda (Production Designer), Kazuko Kurosawa (Costume Supervisor), Tatsumi Nikamoto (Master Swordsman).

“The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi” is one of those films that you can’t help but enjoy.  In fact, I have enjoyed this film so much that I don’t know many times I’ve watched it.  I really enjoyed the modernizing of the samurai film and respect Kitano not wanting to emulate the classic but to do something different for the modern crowd.

Where the classic samurai films will always be there, Kitano wanted to bring some energy into the film with adding humor after major battle scenes, making the blood after a person gets slashed via CG but how it sprays, his goal was to make it more artistic.  But possibly the most surprising of the film is how it ends with a beautiful dance.  Where many samurai films end with the lone samurai leaving and happy villagers celebrating, he wanted to showcase that celebration through a more modernized Japanese dance that would include tap dancing.

I know for some hardcore samurai film fans, they may have a hard time seeing “Zatoichi” so far from the original television series but knowing Kitano’s films and his humor, this was definitely one of those films that has his style but also capturing the spirit of those classic samurai films.

As much as I have loved the film, I still have some problems with the Blu-ray release and its decision to feature it via DNR for the picture quality and to find out that the original Japanese language is not in lossless audio but for the most part, Disney is not the only one who has done this as other Asian (especially anime) films or television shows feature the original language without the lossless audio.

But by no means is this a bad Blu-ray release, the picture quality is not terrible and truthfully, with the videophiles as the exception, most viewers may feel the picture quality to be clean and satisfactory and as for the English dub, for those who hate reading subtitles can find solace in knowing there is a solid English dub included.  I’m not so much into dubs but I have to admit that “The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi” does have a solid English dub.

Overall, “The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi” is not going to be anywhere near reference quality nor will it be up there for great Blu-ray releases but for fans of the “Zatoichi”, it’s still a wonderful film that is worth checking out!

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