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When you get the Miramax DVD of Zatoichi, not only do you get the samurai movie with the vaudeville heart, you get a disc with a second Takeshi film, Sonatine. Both DVDs have extra features, giving you lots of bang for your yen.

The Movie

Plot doesn't matter in this vaudeville entertainment
Plot doesn’t matter in this vaudeville entertainment
Great sound, second feature, make Zatoichi a very good DVD release
Great sound, second feature, make Zatoichi a very good DVD release

Zatoichi is not a new character. He has been featured in scores of movies and hundreds of TV episodes. Think James Bond or Davey Crockett and you might be close to finding the impact this folk figure has had on Japan.

Zatoichi is a blind masseur who travels from town to town. His cane hides a sword, and Zatoichi is fast and deadly with it. Beat Takeshi (the stage name of director Takeshi Kitano) plays Zatoichi, who arrives in town at the same time as three other central characters. One is a ronin traveling with his sick wife. Two are twins looking for revenge — their family was killed 10 years ago, and they’re hunting down the murderers, one by one. The town they arrive in is run by three bosses, and each boss would like to eliminate the other two.

Zatoichi is an observer to all the plot threads, occasionally getting sucked into one or the other long enough for a swordfight with (badly) computer-generated blood and impalings.

So much happens with so many different characters that it’s hard to keep it all straight. But the movie isn’t really about the plot; it’s a vaudeville of entertainment, of which revenge and swordsmanship are only two of the acts. The film also finds comic relief and, unexpectedly, tap-dancing. The dancers set the rhythm of the film every 20 minutes as peasants who hoe, splash, and saw to catchy and intricate rhythms. They also provide the big production number at the end where the entire cast (except for Beat) gives a tap-dancing curtain call.

Zatoichi is a lively, entertaining movie, a “best of” collection. Its scenes are hits and singles, but the whole movie is not an album. It’s entertaining, but not substantive.

DVD Extras

The biggest special feature is actually a feature. It’s Takeshi’s 1993 Yakuza film Sonatine (for a review, I recommend Bryant Frazer’s Deep Focus.), on a second disc, complete with its own special features, including a factless introduction and a rambling debriefing by Quentin Tarantino, and a ten-minute interview with Takeshi from the late 1990s.

The behind-the-scenes featurette (on Zatoichi) is a video calendar that follows the film from a press announcement through five weeks of shooting. There’s nothing earth-shattering here. Just another thirty days in the life of a film crew.

In a separate special feature, the interviews with the crew are similarly workaday. But these are much more interesting for their one-on-one focus. The production designer, Norihiro Isoda, speaks about thatching a roof, and reveals a hidden clue in one of the sets. The costume designer, Kazuko Kurosawa, explains the color scheme for the different gangs and central characters. Most of the crew seemed a little starstruck to be working with Takeshi, particularly the master swordsman Tatsumi Nikamoto, who found Takeshi to be not only a fast learner, but fast and powerful with a weapon.

The least noteworthy features are trailers for other Miramax titles, some repeated on both discs.

Picture and Sound

The first sound-check I did was to play the tap-dancing finale, which sounded great, filling our basement theater with big, live, drum-heavy music. Elsewhere on the disc, the sound is likewise alive. Zatoichi makes great use of surround in the music and in the effects.

I didn’t watch Sonatine all the way through (I’m saving it). But I did see enough to notice a few scratches and specks. The sound quality was very good, although it seemed like most of the movie was dialogue, with little or no music.

Both movies are encoded in Dolby Digital and presented in their original widescreen aspect ratios.