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Zatoichi: Darkness Is His Ally Blu-ray Review

10 min read
I’m confused and a little bored at this point.

Cool sword fights, but way too much plot.

What They Say:
The final chapter in the iconic blind samurai saga!

ZATOICHI is the 26th and final installment in the iconic film series that starred Shintaro Katsu and spanned nearly three decades. Known in Japan as Zatoichi 26 or Zatoichi ‘89, this lavish production was the last to star Katsu, who originated the title role of “the Blind Swordsman” in 1962. He also served as writer and director of this stylishly violent, penultimate adventure. Older and wiser, but still a wandering loner, the blind, peace-loving masseur Ichi seeks a peaceful life in a rural village. When he’s caught in the middle of a power struggle between two rival Yakuza clans, his reputation as a deadly defender of the innocent is put to the test when he’s forced to fend for himself in a series of sword-slashing showdowns. Available for the first time on Blu-ray!

The Review:
The only audio track is Japanese PCM Stereo. English subtitles are provided for non-native speakers. The sound quality is fine, but there is no directionality or other bells and whistles, so it’s rather basic.

The movie is presented in 1080i high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It’s a little dark in places, and the colors are a bit washed out, but those are minor quibbles. This is an overall solid transfer.

The disc comes housed in a standard Blu-ray case. The front cover features the title character standing in a field, balancing on one leg and brandishing his sword. Japanese characters occupy the left side. I think it’s kanji, but I can barely read hiragana or katakana, so I could be wrong. The movie’s title rests on the bottom.

There’s not much to the spine other than the movie’s title in red against a black background, but I rather like the minimalist look of that.

The back cover is your standard fare of story summary followed by stills from the movie, Blu-ray specifications, and cast and crew credits. Overall, it’s a good case and packaging, even if the front cover looks a bit goofy to me given the awkward stance Ichi uses.

The menu is pretty cool. The majority of the screen is taken up by a still photo of one of the sword fights. Ichi stands in a field, stabbing a warrior standing behind him, while two other warriors lie dead at his feet. The title of the movie resides in the upper left-hand corner, written in broad strokes as if painted there with a brush (in red ink, of course). The play and menu options occupy the bottom of the screen in white, easy to read letters set against a swath of red. It’s difficult to tell which option you’ve selected, because the only indication is a slight color change from white to off-white. A neat shamisen riff plays on a ten second loop.

Not much to write home about here. You have the video release trailer and a still gallery that gives a visual history of the series. Given that this is the final film in the series, I would have thought there would be more content here, but perhaps Arrow and Shout! Factory have spoiled me on extras and set up unreasonable expectations on my part.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Zatoichi is a long-beloved character in Japanese film and television. Created by the novelist Kan Shimozawa and developed for film by Daiei Film, the series spans twenty-six movies made between 1962 and 1989, and a one-hundred episode television series that ran from 1974 to 79, all of which starred Shintarô Katsu as the blind swordsman-turned-masseur Ichi, who, despite his best efforts, often gets involved in local conflicts, saving people from warlords, Yakuza, and other assorted villains.

The name “Zatoichi” is actually a combination of the character’s name and title. His name is Ichi, and Zato is his rank in the Tōdōza, or blind men’s guild. Zato is actually the lowest rank within the guild, and his name and title would more properly written as Zatō-no-Ichi or, literally, “Low-Ranking Blind Person Ichi.” Although not much is known of Ichi’s past, we do know that he trained in swordsmanship when he was very young and spent some time working as a Yakuza before giving that up for a life of peace. He regrets the life he spent as a gangster, and he often goes out of his way to help the poor, the disenfranchised, and the weak as a way of atoning.

In many ways, the Zatoichi movies follow the pattern of a Western—Ichi comes to town, minding his own business, gets involved in a situation, cleans house, and rides off (or rather walks off) into the sunset. It’s very formulaic, but it’s also very enjoyable. Of course, living that kind of life creates enemies, and often Ichi must deal with Yakuza and Samurai who wish to collect the bounty on his head.

I’m a sucker for Samurai movies, so this one should have been right up my alley, but there’s way too much plot getting in the way of the story here, and I had a hell of a time following along. The basic story is Ichi comes to a rural village where he hopes to make some money as a masseur and find some peace, but he becomes embroiled in a dispute between two Yakuza clans. Simple story, right? Well, it’s told in such a disjointed, complicated manner that I had to take heavy notes to try and understand and keep up with the plot. I’m presenting an abridged version here to give you an idea.

So, the movie starts off with Ichi at some sort of soup line. Some guys steal his food, but another guy is nice and gives Ichi some of his food. He talks about some sort of revolution and how it will help people like Ichi.

Then Ichi rolls around in the mud, rasslin’ some guy and breaking his arms, damn near folding him up like a pretzel. Was it the one of the guys who stole his food? No idea.

Next, we find Ichi in a monastery or maybe prison where he’s getting whipped, presumably for the previous fight scene.

After that, Ichi travels to a house on the shore that kind of makes me think of Akiro the Wizard’s home from Conan the Barbarian but it’s like twenty times nicer. It’s owned by some dude Ichi is friends with. This guy gives Ichi a new kimono and some money.

We switch gears and see some sort of Yakuza coup staged by some guy with a scar. He’s successful.

Back to Ichi, he hustles some Yakuza at a game of chō-han by using his Daredevil-esque super hearing to figure out the dice. He meets up with the nice guy from the first scene who’s down on his luck. Ichi gives him some money, but the gangsters are pissed at him, so they send him on his way with a lantern, which they use to track him. Ichi knows what’s up, so he blows out the lantern just before they attack, and he cuts them up into tempura.

Then this hot Yakuza chick shows up and takes him to an outdoor bath house. She talks about some plans her gang has, and asks Ichi what she looks like to him. He talks about his mom and how she was the last woman he ever saw because he was blinded when he was two, so all women look like his twenty-eight-year-old mother. He gets an erection talking about this and he and the Yakuza chick have sex. Dude’s got some problems.

After that, Ichi meets up with a Samurai who draws his portrait. Then some guys with hats ask Ichi for directions to an Inn, but it’s a distraction. They pull swords on Ichi, but he kills them like the chumps they are.

Now we follow the artistic Samurai for a bit as he auditions to be a bodyguard for the scarred Yakuza boss. He’s successful, and to celebrate he goes to an Inn. Turns out Ichi’s there, too. No clue of artistic Samurai followed him there or if it’s a coincidence. The two have a drinking game of “paper, scissors, rock” and artistic Samurai pulls out his sword to kill Ichi, but doesn’t because I guess he likes the old guy. Oh, yeah, Ichi is about sixty-five in this movie. Forgot to mention that.

The next morning, more hat guys try to kill Ichi, but he dices them up like he’s a human Ginsu.

Following that we have a montage of Ichi walking to places set to a 70’s power pop ballad that’s catchy in an embarrassing way. Sometimes Ichi runs around in this weird high-knee waddle, and it’s kind of adorable. Unfortunately, he falls into a ditch, but some kids see it and take them to their school or maybe orphanage where he eats with them and helps them hatch a bird egg.

Meanwhile, one Yakuza clan in black harasses another Yakuza clan wearing blue and then some guys with rifles show up. Rifles play a big part in this movie until they don’t.

Back at the orphanage school, Ichi helps the kids clean up.

Snap back to the pretty boy Yakuza Lord who gives a speech about this being the “Age of the Gun.”

Artistic Samurai shows up from time to time, but I’m not really sure what he wants. Seems like a cool guy, though.

Back again to the pretty boy Yakuza. Turns out he’s selling guns to a rival clan, but he’s not selling them bullets. Smart business plan? Maybe.

Side note: Shintarô Katsu kind of looks like my dad if he were born Japanese and not Scots-Irish.

Returning to the movie, Ichi gets hired by some Yakuza to massage their boss, but before that, Ichi talks with the teacher/head of the orphanage about his mother. Dude’s got issues. Anyway, the massage scene is pretty hilarious.

After the massage, Yakuza literally lie in the road in wait for Ichi to pass by. He turns them into little-bitty sashimi and goes on. The Yakuza Boss he just massaged comes by with some men, tosses the corpses into a ditch and says he wants Ichi on his side. Turns out the bad guys Ichi just killed worked for the scarred Yakuza guy, but now massaged Yakuza guy wants to do a double-cross.

I’m confused and a little bored at this point.

Okay, back to the movie: pretty boy Yakuza boss is trying to rape the sister/mother/headmistress/school teacher that’s been helping Ichi. He goes nutty but the Ichi shows up and saves her and has a pretty cool sword fight where he cuts a candle in such a way that the lit part stays on his sword blade. He then blows it out, because “darkness is his ally.” Get it?

Now it’s all-out war between the Yakuza clans and it’s pretty cool. Then a huge barrel rolls into the middle of the fight and somehow rights itself. The head of pretty boy Yakuza boss pops up, but it’s actually Ichi holding it up. Then he cuts himself out of the barrel (how he’s not insanely dizzy, I don’t know) and then we get a good fifteen minutes of sword city, and it’s pretty great, but it’s also maybe too long in coming. Excellent blood spurting, though, and Ichi is kind of hilarious when he runs. He’s really bow-legged.

So, Ichi kills about eleventy-billion Yakuza and the town rejoices. Ichi wanders off into the sunset. Artistic Samurai passes him on the road, but he’s not wearing shoes, so he thinks he’s not making any sound. He pulls his sword, and Ichi carves him up like a cheap turkey from Wal-Mart.

Did you get all that? I hope so, because I am not repeating myself. Like I said: waaay too much plot getting in the way of the story here. In many ways, this movie is a great example of the “and then” problem. Simply put, if you outline a story and it goes “this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens” then you don’t have an actual story, you’ve just got a series of events that might be related, but have no real causal link between them. A story should flow more like this: “this happened, and as a result of this, this other thing happened, but then this happened, and now the protagonist must do this in response.” Each moment, each plot point, leads to the other. It’s the basic physics of action and reaction.

I didn’t really enjoy the movie as a whole, but there are parts of it that I liked. Shintarô Katsu brings a lot of depth, humanity, and even humor to Ichi, and the fight scenes are super fun. They aren’t pretty, like the fight scenes we’re used to today, there’s a rawness to them that makes them feel more real and the sword strikes more kinetic and impactful.

In Summary:
I wish I could say that Ichi goes off on a high note in this final movie in the series, but this is a middling effort that’s marred by a lack of narrative cohesion and just too much stuff going on. It’s great to have in your collection if you’re a fan of chambira films, you should probably add this to your collection just for the sake of completion.

Content Grade: C
Audio Grade: C+
Video Grade: C+
Packaging Grade: A
Menu Grade: A
Extras Grade: C-

Released By: Tokyo Shock
Release Date: August 28th, 2018
MSRP: $29.99
Running Time: 116 minutes
Video Encoding: 1080i AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Review Equipment:
TCL 50S425 50 inch 4K Smart LED Roku TV, Sony Playstation 4 w/HDMI Connection

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