May 11, 2004

DVD Review: Zatoichi (2003)

A Splash of Red: A DVD Review
Zatoichi (2003, d. Takeshi Kitano, s. Takeshi Kitano, Gadarukanaru Taka, Daigoro Tachibana) Region 3 released by Panarama
Film: A little background may be necessary for this review. I believe this is the 27th film in the series dating back to 1962, and the first not to star Shintaru Katsu. That doesn't even take into consideration the 100 plus television episodes. They are a series of films about the adventures of blind masseur who is also a master swordsman. I have 5 of these films on disk, but this is only the second one I have watched, so I may not be the best to describe anything that has gone on up to now. I also don't believe that they have to be watched in any particular order. Now, on to the review!

This film was incredible! It follows the story of the Masseur as he comes to a town where a a pair of geisha are seeking revenge for the murder of their parents. Zatoichi comes upon this town seeking gambling, and what he finds is an eager young man who is impressed by the blind man's gambling skills. It is not too long after this that they come across the geisha girls and uncover their true motives. Zatoichi joins with them and soon they are in the crosshairs of the family that is ruling the town. This builds to an exciting conclusion, which I will not give away.

Takeshi Kitano, who directed the movie, stars as Zatoichi. Kitano has had a long and illustrious career in Japan, I am more familiar with the name than his work. The only other film I have seen him in is Battle Royale, and it was more of a cameo. This is the first time I have fully experienced his screen presence, and what presence it is. He has little dialogue, and even his movements are understated, yet he is captivating on the screen. He is able to convey so much with just the tilt of his heard or the raising of his sword. Also Zatoichi is not the typical hero, he is never out seeking the fight, but he also does not turn away from what he feels is right, so the fights seem to find him rather readily.

There is so much good with this movie, it's hard to pick where to start. The story is not terribly original, but it doesn't matter, it is told with such style that you are immediately drawn in. The movie is an action film, but it is not consumed by that same action. There is blood and severed limbs aplenty, yet it doesn't linger terribly long, and harkens back to the old samurai films of the '60s and '70s. We get to learn about the characters, they become more than cardboard cutouts in a lesser film. We get background story even on seemingly insignificant characters, like the neighbors son who wants to be a samurai and spends most of the film running around half naked and screaming. We also see a little bit into the background of the Bodyguard, who takes a job with the crime family to help his sick wife.

Zatoichi transcends its origins as a Japanese period swordplay film, and would play well with any fan of action movies with character. The combination of character depth, action, and heart puts it well above the typical Hollywood formula piece.

Of course you can't have the good without the bad, although there is little bad to be had here. The worst I can think of at the moment, is the use of CG blood, I would have preferred a more practical effect approach, similar to Kill Bill. But that is a minor quibble that really didn't affect me too much. Other than that, I can't really say any bad about it.

There were some interesting touches throughout the film. At the beginning and end there are sequences with workers who tools make noises that fit in with the beat of the music, adding another layer which makes the music blend in more with the action. It is hard to describe, except the opening segment reminded me of something the Blue Man Group may do (but with more PVC tubing of course). And at the end there is also an interesting traditional dance at a festival in the town, something I did not expect to see. Also things like Zatoichi shaking the blood from his sword after each slash, and the underhand style he employs, which is true in all the films. All of the humor spread through, which doesn't take you out of the film, like it can sometimes do.

Video: The video is free from any blemishes, marks, dust. What you would expect of such a recent film. The biggest problem with it is that the colors are faded and washed out, it is not as sharp as I hoped it would be. The image is clear, but does get muddy in darker scenes and detail is diminished. It's better than a lot of other HK disks I have seen, but still disappointing.

Audio: Audio is good and available in a few different flavors. First there is a Cantonese dub, which sounded artificial, kind of like English dubs do. We also get the original Japanese in Dolby Digital Stereo and 5.1, plus DTS 5.1. I watched with the Dolby Digital 5.1 track on and it sounded good, a little low on the volume, but clear and free of any hiss.

Extras: There is a second disk with a making of documentary and a series of interviews. Sadly, I cannot really comment on them as they are in Japanese with Chinese subtitles, no English here. There are also a few postcards with images from the film included.

Bottom Line: Great movie that I would recommend to any action fan capable of playing Region 3 disks. Excellent action, direction, acting, story. Overall one of the better action films I have seen recently. It's a shame these movies don't get more of chance here in the US.
Highly Recommended.


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