Zatoichi the Outlaw

image, zatoichi the outlawWhat a difference a change in series can make. Watch this film’s star, Shintaru Katsu, in his other major vehicle, the mind numbingly brutal Hanzo The Razor series, and if you can sit through the parts where he fucks a bag of rice or smashes his penis with a hammer, I’m not sure you’ll come away with much about this particular actor’s vibe. There is no such problem here. The Zatoichi series, which spans something like 25 films and a TV series, presents Katsu as the charming yet deadly blind swordsman/ masseur (It’s true. Zatoichi means "Ichi the Masseur") and he delivers one of the coolest screen characters out there. In fact, aside from Toshiro Mifune’s "Yojimbo*", I’d have to say Zatoichi is my favorite out of all the sword wielding badasses that graced Japanese screens in the 60s/ early 70s. Considering my affection for that particular period, that’s saying something.

As a side note, the two characters mentioned above actually meet in the classic Zatoichi vs. Yojimbo. Just thinking about that film’s existence makes me happy. The fine folks at Samurai Cinema released that one too… nudge, nudge…

Anyway, this particular entry is a fine example of what to expect from this seminal chanbara series. The story, at it’s kernel, is a familiar one. Ichi wanders into a town, gets caught up in the middle of a huge mess and then, in a blood soaked finale, manages to set things right. That’s at it’s kernel. As a whole the plot is as intricate as it is interesting and plays the audience for all it’s worth, delivering a real "cheer for Ichi" emotional payoff in the aforementioned blood bath of an ending. That with the plentiful fights and charming protagonist make for a well crafted action picture. Check it out…

One note about this release and then I’m out of here. Simply put there is no better company out there when it comes to presenting foreign language films than the outfit handling this release, Samurai Cinema. Sit back to watch this tape and aside from the obvious benefit of watching a great movie, you’ll also be treated to painstakingly- translated, color-coded (for overlapping dialogue), supertitle-aided (for definitions of strictly Japanese terms), subtitles. It’s not the same as knowing Japanese, but it’s as close as you’re going to get. If that doesn’t do it for you, they also present a couple of pages of liner notes presenting perspective on Japanese history and language as it relates to specific elements of the film. Great stuff. If everybody put this much care into the presentation of foreign genre classics, the world would be a better place.

* Mifune’s character is never named. Yojimbo simply means "bodyguard." Yojimbo was also the first film in that series so it works as an identifier, but it’s not the character’s name. From the something everyone should know dept.: Sergio Leone stole the character/ story/ no name gimmick and made a series of succesful Spaghetti Westerns out of it (Fist Full of Dollars, etc.). That illustrates a sad phenomenon: you can make a career out of ripping off Akira Kurosawa.

The review was originally published in Boston's Weekly Dig (now digBoston) in April 2000.