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Sunday, September 13, 2009


Zatoichi: The Best Cuts: 1967-1973
Music by Shigeru Ikeno, Akira Ifukube, Isao Tomita
and Kunihiko Murai
La-La Land Records LLLCD 1102 (US)
31 Tracks 47:08 mins

I love the fact that you never know what you're going to get next from this label. The musical territory covered seems to know no bounds, witness this new release of music from the Japanese chambara (sword fight) film series.
Zatoichi, a blind masseur and master swordsman, first came to the screen in 1962 and his adventures continued through 25 films up until 1973, with a television series also running from 1972-79, all the time starring Shintaro Katsu. Unfortunately, Katsu died of cancer in 1997, but Takeshi Kitano brought out a further adventure, naturally starring himself, in 2003, which even included an all dancing, all singing finale! Happily, all the films and two volumes of the TV series can be viewed on DVD.
Although Daiei originated the series, Toho took over and this collection concentrates on seven of their releases between 1967 and 1973, commencing with 1967's Zatoichi the Outlaw, which was scored by Sei Ikeno. The four rather brief featured tracks commence with the somewhat weighty and ominous "Main Title," followed by an a Capella vocal of the "Farming Song" by the cast of villagers. "Asagorou" presents the menacing motif for the villain of the piece, and "Theme Song" features a lament sung by Katsu himself.
Next up is the first of two scores written by the more famous Akira Ifukube, who scored the original Daiei releases. 1970's Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo sees the great Toshiro Mifune reprising his role as that other great swordsman, here represented by just one track, "Daiei Mark/Main Title," which, after a desolate, windswept opening, presents a brief voice over by Katsu before the music proceeds in almost funereal mode.
This is followed by a generous nine tracks from Isao Tomita's score for 1970's Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival, and includes the ethnic-styled, low-key march "Title Back;" the ominous, organ-lead "The Dark Shogun;"the action cue "Great Sword Battle on the Oil Ship," with its somewhat jazz-pop-driven sound, a sound that continues into "Zatoichi Falls Into a Trap," which is followed by the menacing "Zatoichi and the Dark Shogun." "Conclusion - Ichi and the Nameless Ronin" offers poignant reflection, before "Ichi and Okiyo" lightens the mood, with a big and bold "Ending" concluding the score.
The same composer's score for the following year's Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman receives seven tracks and, after the opening "Dainichi Mark"signature logo, progresses with an almost spaghetti western feel to the "Main Title," with its dramatic trumpet and electric guitar. "The Tragic Chinaman/Genocide" offers tension and menacing action, with "The Invincible Chinese Sword" continuing in action mode. "Ichi and Okiyo" offers a moment of respite (and no, it's not a repeat of the same titled track from the previous score), before the action continues in "Wong Gong and Kakuze." The concluding "Break! Chinese Sword/Ending" reprises the title music in fine style.
Just the "Main Theme," a very '70s styled, laid-back piece, with a distinct Italian influence, brought to a sudden halt by jarring effects, and composed by Kunihiko Murai, is included from his score for 1972's Zatoichi at Large, with his "Ending," another Italian-styled piece, also featuring from the same year's Zatoichi in Desperation
Ifukube made a triumphant return for the final Zatoichi film of the '70s, 1973's Zatoichi's Conspiracy, and eight tracks from his typically more traditional Japanese-styled score are featured here, commencing with the poignant "Zatoichi Takes Edo Highway," and continuing with a slow march-like theme for the "Main Title.""Ichi and Omiyo - Encounter" and "Ichi and Omiyo - Farewell" feature variations on a touching theme, with piano, violins, flutes and koto prominent, Of course Ifukube's monster scores are famous for their requiems, and he duly provides a brief one here in "The Wounded People/Shinbei's Conspiracy." "Zatoichi - Victimization in Kasama" is a tense, ominous affair, continuing into "Shinbei's Final Moment;" the "Ending" offering a more sunny outlook before concluding in subdued triumph.
Accompanying the collection is the usual high quality booklet one has come to expect from the label, which features Randall D. Larson's excellent notes on the films and their music, illustrated with colour stills. Order your copy of this limited edition of just 1500 units from, where you can first listen to samples if you so wish.


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