zatoichi-criterion-collectionI had something else originally planned for today’s Sunday Matinee but then Criterion announced something that I couldn’t ignore. On November 26 Criterion is releasing a massive 27 disc / 25 movie box set of Zatôichi.

For those unfamiliar with Zatôichi it was a series of movies that started in 1962 and ran until 1973 for a total of 25 films. In 1974 a TV series was launched that ran for four season for a total of 100 episodes. Shintarô Katsu starred as Zatôichi for all the films and the TV series. In 1989 a final Zatôichi film was made to wrap up the series which Shintarô Katsu wrote, directed and starred in.

The series followed Zatôichi a blind masseuse and gambler as he travels from town to town. Zatôichi is also a master swordsman who uses a cane sword that is disguised as his walking stick. Most of the films have Zatôichi getting involved in some dispute, usually from a local crime boss and having to save the day and help out some poor innocent that’s been caught in the crossfire. The first two films were shot in black and white with rest shot in colour. In the later films there were a couple of team-ups. One that was co-produced with the Shaw Brothers and featured Hong Kong star Jimmy Wang Yu’s One Armed Swordsman character and the other team-up was with Toshiro Mifune. It was implied that Mifune’s character was the same as his popular Yojimbo character from the Akira Kurosawa movies. It wasn’t really but they implied anyway.

In 1990 there was an American remake called Blind Fury that starred Rutger Hauer as the blind swordsman. Sadly that was the film that introduced me to Zatôichi and prompted me to seek out the originals. In 2003 actor / director Takeshi Kitano made a remake called Zatôichi. In 2008 Ichi was released about a blind girl who was trained by Zatôichi. In 2010 there was one more Zatôichi film released called Zatôichi: The Last. It wasn’t very good.

But the original 25 films are pretty damn good and they are the ones that Criterion is releasing. Digital restored, on Blu-ray and all of them this time. When the films were first released on DVD the rights were split between a couple of companies and while the majority of them were released on DVD in North America Zatôichi’s Pilgrimage was never released because a third company bought the rights and never released it.

There is some repetition throughout the series but they are excellent films and damn entertaining, Shintarô Katsu is excellent in the role and carries many a film. When the set is released in November I may bombard Sunday Matinee with a few reviews but until then here’s the trailer for Zatôichi to Yôjinbô.