EDITOR'S NOTE: It wasn't too long ago that a mystery surrounded the licensing of Zatoichi #14. This article was written a few years ago in response to numerous inquiries about its availability. The following is outdated but it does provide information and insight about Zatoichi #14 as well as to the series' history.
THE HISTORY AND MYSTERY SURROUNDING ZATOICHI #14
"Zatoichi Umio Wataru" a.k.a. "Zatoichi's Pilgrimage" a.k.a. Zatoichi #14 a.k.a. The Zatoichi Holy Grail.
Where art thou?
The Zatoichi film franchise is comprised of 26 theatrical releases. And of the 26, 25 are readily available on DVD. Once piece-mealed a title at a time on VHS, then later on DVD in sometimes groups of three titles, it took only a short matter of time before Zatoichi enthusiasts worldwide were readily able to satiate their need for a Zatoichi "fix."
But somewhere along the bumpy licensing road, the 14th chapter of the famed series, "Zatoichi's Pilgrimage," never surfaced. Zato heads waited patiently, hoping with all their might that soon, or someday, Zatoichi #14 would become available on Amazon.com or in their local Blockbuster store. But their quest for the missing episode to fill out their Zatoichi library never bore fruit.
Or did it?
I've received many inquiries about this long lost episode in the Zatoichi series. Some claim that they've found a source for legal copies. Is it true? they ask. Let me shed some light on their question.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
The Zatoichi character, brought to life by the inimitable Shintaro Katsu, was relatively unknown in the United States. But in Japan, he was a much beloved film personality for many years, which, logically, justified making 26 films as well as over 100 TV episodes. But thanks to the airing of the Independent Film Channel's "Samurai Saturday" a few years ago, the blind swordsman films' popularity swelled and soon newly found fans abounded everywhere.
For the U.S. market, the Zatoichi saga started in 1985 with "Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo." Although the first U.S. release, it was actually the 20th episode of the series (which co-starred the somewhat better known Toshiro Mifune who appeared in the TV miniseries "Shogun" in 1980) and was licensed to a Los Angeles-based company, Video Action (VA) by Daiei Pictures. (Daiei later went bankrupt and the Zato films were produced by Toho Pictures and Shintaro Katsu's production company.)
VA was the first American company to obtain video release rights to not only "Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo" but for a large part of the Zatoichi film series. And, in a very technically progressive move, VA incorporated into all their releases, which at that time were on VHS, a wonderful process that would later be called "Chambarama." This process entailed putting the subtitles in the black space beneath the anamorphic picture instead of directly into the film frame -- a welcomed innovation to subtitle readers everywhere.
In the mid-1980s, VA joined with another company in Hawaii, Chambara Entertainment. (The Japanese word "chambara" means "sword-fighting movies.") All in all, the merged company had purchased the VHS licensing and distribution rights to episodes 1-15 and 17-20. For whatever reason, Chambara released the titles in no particular order. And though they held the rights to #8 ("Fight, Zatoichi, Fight"), #11 ("Zatoichi's Revenge"), and #14, these were never released. (NOTE: The DVD releases are titled differently than the corresponding VHS releases. This confusion can be laid at the doorstep of the Japanese license holders who dictated such.)
What's important to note is that Chambara Entertainment did, at one time, possess the U.S. rights to the now elusive "Zatoichi's Pilgrimage" and had every intention of releasing it but didn't. Why not? Probably money.
WHEN VHS WAS KING
For those old enough to remember, early on, VHS movies commanded a very high price. It wasn't unusual that film favorites came onto the market with a $49.95, $59.95, or even $79.95 price tag. Soon, however, studios began to backtrack in their thinking and started reducing their prices -- drastically. Originally, Chambara's Zatoichi releases were priced at that just-under $80 figure. Their game plan was probably predicated on this high profit margin. But as market pressure increased, Chambara was forced to bring their prices in line, typically around the $20 to $25 range.
Also, it's not commonly known, but the Japanese had a bad habit of providing its U.S. licensees with terrible master tapes. Chambara was stuck with murky, discolored masters. They did their best to clean them up, but this provided yet another hurdle in bringing Zatoichi to the masses.
With VHS tapes facing a similar fate as 78-rpm records, Chambara Entertainment suddenly found itself on the outside looking in. For no apparent reason, or at least nothing Daiei Pictures would admit to, Chambara, whose VHS license was about to lapse, lost its bid for the Zatoichi titles on DVD. That treasure went to Home Vision Entertainment in Chicago. (Later, Home Vision would be bought by Image Entertainment.)
AnimEigo Company, which specialized in anime and who held VHS licenses for other Zatoichi titles, was also granted DVD licensing rights to those same titles. And much later in the game, New York-based Media-Blasters purchased the U.S. rights to the last Zatoichi chapter, simply titled "Zatoichi 26."
Among the three active players in the Zatoichi DVD licensing competition, however, not one was given the rights to Zatoichi #14. Why? To start with, it was the only episode that was outright owned by Shintaro Katsu himself, and later handed down to his heirs. Home Vision badly desired #14 but were rebuked. No reason was disclosed.
Zatoichi #14 was available in Japan sans English subtitles. Its current availability is unknown. At one time, Amazon.com in the United Kingdom, had what was publicized as #14 but upon reading the episode's description, proved to be #16, "Zatoichi The Outlaw."
So, through the days of VHS tapes and the emergence of the DVD, the Zatoichi licensing merry-go-round was successful in creating a large, sometimes fanatical base. But for many Zato fans, it left a bad taste in their mouth. For those wishing to complete their library, they couldn't get their hands on the ever-elusive #14.
Enter the bootlegger.
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