If you’re like me, you’re a fan of “Zatoichi” and know all too well how expensive the movie series can be to purchase. Zatoichi garners almost thirty films in his movie series, two of which are released separately. The first twenty five are, of course, often released in box set form and are sold at terribly expensive prices, and immediately go out of print. If you want to collect all of the movies individually online through a purchase, good luck finding an online seller that won’t charge an arm and a leg. Back in the early aughts I attempted to buy as many “Zatoichi” films as I could, and only ended up finding four. I never could bear to buy the rare box sets at almost five hundred bucks. Thankfully, Criterion comes to the rescue, offering a deluxe box set of one of my favorite action movie series of all time, “Zatoichi.”
The entire twenty five movie series starring the original (and the best) Zatoichi, Shintaro Katsu, is a reasonably priced and absolutely beautiful collection of twenty five rare, and extremely entertaining action thrillers about the blind samurai. Shintaro Katsu, plays the pudgy Zatoichi, a man with a sordid past that include war, violence and murder. Stricken blind during combat, he now roams the land of Japan a disgrace. Forced in to doing menial tasks like massages and house work, the blind samurai roams the land with his cane. But Zatoichi is more than he appear. Though on first meeting he’s a gambling addicted, sake drinking, putz, he’s actually a wise and lethal samurai whose cane can turn in to a sword with the strike of lightning. Zatoichi uses his wits, senses, and combat skills to fight off his nemeses, and sadly finds himself involved in a terrible dilemma where ever he goes. Whether it’s a gang war, an evil land baron, helping a young woman, murderers, bandits, or caring for an orphaned child, Zatoichi battles evil, and hopes to gain redemption for his past.
Katsu’s performance is very much in the vein of Peter Falk in “Columbo,” where his genius is uncompromising and shocking thanks to his outward appearance which contradicts his internal wisdom and keen skills of perception. Katsu is short, pudgy, and often times oafish, but is a force to be reckoned with, once he decides to wield his sword. “Zatoichi” is action packed, compelling, and also never afraid to dole out comedy here and there. Criterion collects twenty five of the movies from the series with dual format editions for Blu-Ray and DVD collectors. The set comes in a beautifully compiled box set with a binder holding the discs, as well as a small booklet that feature summaries of every film included, an essay by Chris D., as well as the short story “The Tale of Zatoichi” by Kan Shimozawa, as well as twenty five full color works of art from various artists and their interpretations of the films.
Among the list of movies are some of my favorite titles, and some not so great ones. Like every movie series, the titles vary, but there isn’t an actual bad film in the bunch. The Zatoichi Collection acquires the first official film of the series The Tale of Zatoichi, The Tale of Zatoichi Continues, New Tale of Zatoichi , Zatoichi the Fugitive, Zatoichi on the Road, Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, Adventures of Zatoichi, Zatoichi’s Revenge, Zatoichi and the Doomed Man, Zatoichi and the Chess Expert, Zatoichi’s Vengeance, Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, Zatoichi’s Cane Sword, Zatoichi the Outlaw, Zatoichi Challenged, Zatoichi and the Fugitives, Samaritan Zatoichi, Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival, Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman, Zatoichi at Large, Zatoichi in Desperation, and finally, Zatoichi’s Conspiracy, the final film before the character transitioned in to television.
Along with digital restorations, there are trailers for all of the films, and new English subtitles. Finally, there’s “The Blind Swordsman,” a 1978 documentary about Zatoichi actor and seasoned performer/filmmaker Shintaro Katsu, along with a new interview with the documentary’s director, John Nathan. If you’re a Zatoichi fan seeking out the collection of the film series, you really can not get better than this box set. Criterion knows how to respect film, and gives this movie series the love it deserves. For folks that love samurai films, this is worth experimentation, if only because Zatoichi is a brilliant anti-hero. One that I’ve loved for years.