Sunday, April 21, 2024

THE BLIND SWORDSMAN: ZATOICHI (2003) (Imprint Asia Blu-ray Review)

Imprint Asia #3

Label: Imprint Asia
Region Code: Region-Free 
Rating: MA
Duration: 116 Minutes 20 Seconds
Audio: Japanese DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround, Japanese LPCM 2.0 Stereo with Optional English Subtitles
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1)
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Cast: Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano, Yui Natsukawa, Yuko Daike, Daigoro Tachibana, Ittoku Kishibe

Written by, directed by and starring Takeshi Kitano (Battle Royale)  was a 2003 revival of the Zatoichi series, it delivers the familiar themes of the long-running films series with a couple of tasty twists. Kitano stars as the titular blind masseur/swordsman who wanders into a small village where the people are under the thumb of the ruling gang the Ginzos, also affected by the Ginzos ongoing feud with their Kuchinawa rivals. It's while visiting a gambling house that Zatoichi meets and befriends a pair of geisha assassins, O-Kinu (Yuko Daike, Ju-On: The Curse 2) and O-Sei (Daigoro Tachibana), the latter of who is a man in drag, who tell him of how they are on a mission of vengeance, to kill the men responsible for their family annihilation a decade earlier, the Ginzo boss (Ittoku Kishibe, The Sting of Death). 

After befriending a couple more people in the village the blind, nomadic samurai is determined to assist the residents of a village, delivering justice with his fast-moving sword skills which seem near supernatural in their precision and quick-bladed judgment. As Zatoichi begins slicing his way through the gang affiliates the boss hires a new bodyguard by way of ronin Hattori (Tadanobu Asano, Ichi the Killer), who also turns out to be quite masterful swordsman himself, a formidable adversary, and we know from the start that the two are destined to clash. 

It's very attractively shot film, not showy or overly artful, but the scenes of rural feudal Japan look terrific with vibrant colors, the wooden structures and period clothing have an authentic look and texture to them, and the sword play looks stellar as both Zatoichi and Hattori face and vanquish their numerous enemies with precision, before their inevitable face-off. Most of the splashy bloodshed is digital which art first turned me off, but the stylized look of it proved to be quite pleasing after I got used to it. The story itself is pretty traditional for a Zatoichi flick, you have the titular blind swordsman wandering into a troubled village and uses his skill with a blade to rectify the wrongs being inflicted on the peasants by the ruling gangs. Kitano plays with the conventions a bit, in this incarnation the character is blond and short-cropped, clean-shaven, played with a bit of a stone-faced smirk, there's humor to it, and he loves gambling and has a taste for saki. His nemesis Hattori is also not quite the evil bastard as past incarnations, he's a ronin-for-hire who takes the job, but only to properly care for his ailing wife, who pleads for him not to take the job, but he does so out of duty to his wife. I also quite liked the additional characters he befriends, including Aunt O-Ume (Michiyo Ogusu, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons), her gambling degenerate nephew Shinkichi 
(Guadalcanal Taka, Boiling Point), and a village idiot who thinks he's a samurai in training, running around with a spear annoying pretty everyone he encounters. 

The film also has a very cool soundtrack by Keiichi Suzuki (Uzamaki) that is rhythmic and percussive, cleverly the visuals often match the soundtrack, such as a scene of men hoeing a field, their work matching teh soundtrack, this occurs fairly often and add an interesting elements to the film, including a musical Kabuki tap-dance finale of the village celebrating their freedom from gang tyranny. At almost two hours long I did feel this was a bit padded out just a tad, I looked at my watch a few times, but I enjoyed the assortment of archetypal characters, it looks great and the swordplay and bloodshed is quite satisfying. 

Audio/Video: Imprint Asia presents the film in 1080p HD framed in 1.85:1 widescreen. There's no mention of this being a new scan so in all likelihood it is the same HD scan used by Miramax for their 2009 U.S. release, looking like an older HD master. Colors looks excellent, black levels are quite nice, but film grain looks light and anemic. There's still some fine detail and texture to it, but it does not filmic to my eye. Audio comes by way of Japanese DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround, and LPCM 2.0 stereo with optional English subtitles, both are strong presentations free of any source related hiss or distortion, the Japanese dialogue sounds fine, and the percussive score shiones. 

Imprint carry-over all the archival extras from the Miramax 2009 release by way of the 40-min The Making Of The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi; 39-min of Cast Interviews with Kitano Takeshi, Mori Masayuki, Nikamoto Tatsumi, Tokora Hiroaki, Kurosawa Kazuko, Isoda Norihiro, Yanagishima Katsumi, Hideboh, Suzuki Keiichi, and Horiuchi Senji; plus the 85-sec Theatrical Trailer

The only truly new extras is an insightful Audio Commentary by film historian and author Sean Redmond that I quite enjoyed, as someone not too familiar with the career of director/writer/star Kitano Takeshi, nor even the Zatoichi films in general, this was quite a treat. The single-disc release arrives in a clear keepcase with a Two-Sided, Non-Reversible Wrap of artwork, plus a Limited Edition Slipcase with it's own unique artwork. 

Special Features:
- NEW! Audio Commentary by film historian and author Sean Redmond
- The Making Of The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (39:57) 
- Crew Interviews: Kitano Takeshi (12:46), Mori Masayuki (3:37), Nikamoto Tatsumi and Tokora Hiroaki (7:49), Kurosawa Kazuko (7:11), Isoda Norihiro (5:51), Yanagishima Katsumi (5:15), Hideboh (5:34), Suzuki Keiichi (5:39), Horiuchi Senji 
- Theatrical Trailer (1:25) 
- Limited Edition slipcase with Unique Artwork

Screenshots from the Imprint Asia Blu-ray: