As if we didn’t have enough reason to love Criterion already, they go and provide us with a gift like this just in time for Christmas: a 27 disc set of all 25 Zatoichi films. The collection even includes the 14th film in the series, Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, the rights to which belonged to Miramax for nearly two decades after Tarantino expressed interest in making a similar samurai-themed film. The project was abandoned when they learned Takeshi Kitano was releasing his own Zatoichi film in 2003, The Blind Swordsman, which went on to win people’s choice awards at numerous festivals (Including TIFF and Venice), and which Miramax would eventually help distribute (without much financial success). Curiously, Tarantino’s own samurai epic, Kill Bill would release its first installment stateside just a month after Kitano’s film was released in Japan. At any rate, the rights to Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage languished with the Weinsteins, though now it seems Criterion has managed to get hold of them (for the time being, at any rate).
The James Bond of Japanese cinema, Zatoichi just so happened to be a wandering blind masseur instead of a spy, and while Bond relied on his gadgets and guns, Zatoichi used his unsurpassed skill with a samurai sword.
Set during Japan’s Edo period (which Kurosawa would frequently revisit with his jidai-geki), this chanbara (sword-fighting) series ran from 1962 to 1973 and dealt with complex issues like class relations, subversive social issues and the function of violence in society. If 11 years seems like a short production time for 25 films, it’s because the Japanese film system at the time structured its releases around seasons rather than years (in much the same way that the American studio system treats late spring to mid-summer as the blockbuster season and February as the dumping ground).
But wait! 27 discs for 25 films? Blu-ray/DVD combo pack? It breaks down like this: 9 BDs containing all the films and supplemental features (including a documentary, an interview with Asian film critic Tony Ryans and trailers), 18 DVDs carrying the same material, and all of it housed in a magnificent box with each film receiving new cover artwork. The only films not included are the 1989 and 2003 remakes, which are, incredibly, out of print in North America. Nevertheless, the core Zatoichi series is here, preserved with care and finesse by the folks at Criterion with stunning HD remasterings.
Though it won’t be available until November 26, check it out over at the Criterion website: