Release Date(s)1989 (August 28, 2018)
Studio(s)Katsu Production Co./Shochiku Company (Tokyo Shock/Media Blasters)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: C
After so many years of hoping and waiting for the 26th and final film in the Zatoichi series to be released in HD, it’s almost hard to believe that day has finally come. But it’s true: Media Blasters has released Zatoichi (1989) on Blu-ray Disc at last.
Co-written and directed by star Shintaro Katsu, this last installment opens with a greying Ichi serving a brief jail sentence for petty theft. While there, he meets a man named Tsuru who shows him kindness and vows become a better person. Once they’re free, Zatoichi encounters the man again at a gambling house and helps him to make a bit of money, thus returning the kindness and allowing Tsuru to genuinely turn his life around. But of course, this gambling house is owned by a gang of criminals that’s just been taken over by a vile young man named Goemon. Goemon is vying with a rival young boss for control of the area, and both of them soon take note of Zatoichi’s prowess with a sword. Also in the mix are a female yakuza who seduces Ichi, and a ronin with insomnia who is sometimes his companion and sometimes his nemesis.
Zatoichi (1989) is the most violent entry in the series, featuring more obvious gore and blood splatter, some nudity, and a 70s-esque closing credits song performed in English. It contains what I believe is (if my reflection is correct) the only actual love scene in the entire film series. Zatoichi (1989) is also somewhat notorious for the fact that Katsu’s son, Ryutaro Gan (who plays Goemon), accidentally killed an extra during the filming of the climactic fight scene, thus requiring the scene to be reworked. Additionally, many of the supporting characters are played by Katsu’s longtime friends, cohorts, and drinking buddies, including a few Japanese rock stars of the day.
The A/V quality of the new Media Blasters Blu-ray release is fair to good, though not up to the standards of the recent Criterion BD restorations. Classic Japanese films have tended to suffer from poor preservation though, so that’s not unexpected. The film is presented in its proper 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. It was shot mostly on 35 mm film, but a few scenes were shot on 16 mm and blown up to 35. One of these is the opening sequence, which takes place in the shadowy interior of the jail. You’ll notice coarse grain and a little bit of fading which the compression seems to struggle with. The black levels are also somewhat crushed on occasion. But stick with it because the image quality soon improves. Detail becomes satisfying, with no more than the usual print defects (occasional dust, dirt, etc). The coloring is pushed a little to the warm side, but is generally accurate. On the whole, this is a decent HD image of a film of this vintage, and it’s certainly an improvement over the previous DVD releases. Audio is Japanese 2.0 LPCM stereo (48 kHz/16 bit) and is mostly clean. Optional English subtitles are available.
The only extras on the disc are both in low quality SD. They include the original video release trailer for the film and also The Zatoichi Gallery: Video History of a Legend, which is an 11-minute video gallery of Japanese and international poster images, production stills, pressbooks, record covers, and the like spanning the entire history of the character. Both of these are carried over from the previous Media Blasters DVD release.
Add this disc to Criterion’s magnificent 25-film Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman Blu-ray box set (reviewed in-depth here on The Bits) and you have the complete film series at long last. It’s also worth noting that, in between the first 25 films in the Criterion box and this final film, 100 episodes of a Japanese TV series were produced starring Katsu as Zatoichi. You can actually buy all of these episodes on DVD (in four season sets) from Samurai DVD with new English subtitle translation. If you’re an ultimate Zatoichi fan, they’re worth having.
Zatoichi (1989) certainly isn’t the best films in this series, as it repeats or echoes many scenes found in earlier films, the editing can be a little disjointed, and the story occasionally feels too much like a vanity project for Katsu. But the film does have its charms. In between episodes of carnage, Katsu’s final turn as the Blind Swordsman offers moments of his characteristic humor, a bit of reflection, and his usual humanity. It’s a thrill to finally have this film on Blu-ray. Get it while you can.
- Bill Hunt