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Fans of Asian action cinema have seen some oddball heroes in recent years: one-armed swordfighters, drunken masters, and the like. But one of Japan's favorite characters was one of the most unlikely — a pudgy man whose swordsmanship was without equal, who happened to be blind as a bat. Zatoichi, as he's known, was the star of 27 films, about 100 television episodes, comic books, novels, et cetera. Seeing these two early films, the first to be released on DVD, it's easy to see why.

In the first installment, there is little action on screen; instead, we get a drama of character and tradition that has the pacing and verve of a martial arts epic. Zatoichi (played by Shintaro Katsu) was a professional masseur (in Japanese tradition, one of the lowliest of the professions available to the blind) until, fed up with other people's pity, he taught himself to wield a blade. American audiences familiar with Daredevil comics will find it easy to accept that Ichi's incredibly heightened sense of hearing makes him capable of sightless swordplay, but the man's character is still a surprise. Neither a paragon of virtue nor a mercenary, he enjoys bilking fellow gangsters out of their pocket money, but he's willing to risk his life to pay respects to a fallen friend.

The second film has some wonderful fight scenes, all of which are over almost as quickly as they have begun — and Ichi's technique, in which he holds his blade upside down and often makes the fatal cut behind his back, is (pardon me) a sight to behold. But the most gripping thing onscreen is the blind man's face; more often than you'd expect, the filmmakers use close-ups to show Ichi's troubled emotional responses to the callous criminals around him. As a result, the audience is extra ready to see him unleash some efficient mayhem. Home Vision plans to release episodes three through five later this year — I, for one, can't wait.

The Tale of Zatoichi
The tale of Zatoichi Continues
DVD, Home Vision Entertainment

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