Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (2003) dir. Takeshi Kitano
Starring: Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano, Gadarukanaru Taka, Yûko Daike, igorô Tachibana
By Alan Bacchus
Zatoichi is one of Japan’s treasured fictional heroes, a blind wandering masseur/samurai whose unassuming, quiet and lumbering gate fools his opponents into underestimating him. As a champion of justice, Zatoichi travels the lands of 19th century Japan helping those in need of protection against evil.
Between 1962 and 1989, 26 films were made starring the character’s original actor, Shintaro Katsu, as well an American remake, Blind Fury, with Rutger Hauer. And so in 2003, Japanese screen legend Beat Takeski’s version arrived with both excitement as well as a certain amount of caution. Having not been familiar with any of the other depictions of the character, Takeshi’s makes for pure cinematic entertainment - humour, action, music and dance blended seamlessly in a package hyperaware of its audience and its need to entertain. For this reason it gobbled up the prestigious Audience Prize Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Silver Lion at Venice as Best Director. Though, for one of my trusted colleagues familiar with Japanese cinema, it’s a pale comparison to Shintaro Katsu's legacy.
Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano) is no ordinary masseur. He's a blind Ronin samurai wandering the land with his trusty blade hidden in his red cane, always at the ready. In the opening scene, limping, hunchbacked and featuring a strange died blonde hairdo, Zatoichi is approached by a gang of malfeasants looking for an easy score. Before one of the thugs even blinks an eye Zatoichi reveals a sword from his cane, slices it through the thug's body and replaces it back in its sheath. Wow. That’s just one guy, but when the whole group of them attack at once, their defeat is just as fast, grisly and effortless. Zatoichi soon wanders into a poor rural town controlled by this same group of gangsters. Fighting back against the gang are a brother-sister duo masquerading as geishas and looking for revenge against their parents' death. Like the covert politicking in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More the geishas attempt to sabotage and subvert the action of the gang from within. And when they team up with Zatoichi, hell be damned for the gang.
The notion of a blind swordsman is ridiculous, and indeed it makes for fun, irreverent physical humour. Kitano walks around embellishing all the precariousness of an old, poor blind man, with the pay-off being the pinpoint accuracy of his striking. In fact, there’s really nothing he can’t do that a full-sighted man can. So what’s the point of making him blind? Well, it makes for great gags and it changes way the other characters relate to him. But it works as an extreme version of the archetypal lonesome unsuspecting hero.
But Takeshi’s charisma is maximized. His head tilt and twitchy facial ticks embellish the actor’s already enigmatic persona as well as his archetypal characters. We barely even get a full-frame shot of his face, his head always angled away from the camera.
The film’s swordplay scenes are lightning quick. Death comes in one or two quick movements, a conscious decision of Kitano to avoid the monotony of lengthy and repetitive unrealistic sword clanging. The use of digital blood that splatters across the frame with each kill is not invisible to us. Although in the Blu-ray special features Kitano tells us his motivations are for added ‘realism’, its effectiveness is the opposite, a cinematic hyperrealism and that distinct Romero-like carnage of a zombie movie.
The story beats are plotted out with the same western genre familiarity, and then there’s the surprise of the final sequence, which plays like the Ewoks' group song at the end of Return of the Jedi – in a good way. Kitano teases us with the rhythmic sounds of the farmers throughout the picture. And by the end the monotonous plowing and wood chopping syncs up forming a musical beat. This evolves into a large-scale choreographed tap dance sequence played straight to camera - a finale, which, like the Bollywood dance number closing out Slumdog Millionaire, sends the audience out with a bang and a smile. Enjoy.
The Blindswordsman: Zatoichi is available on Blu-ray from Miramax/Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.