Zatôichi Movie Review
Zatôichi, the hero of 26 feature films and a long-running television series in his native Japan, was a wandering masseur, gambler, and warrior (played by Shintaro Katsu from 1962 to 1989) who fought for the rights of the downtrodden working-class man against villainous crime lords and land barons. In this reinterpretation of the Japanese icon, director Kitano plays Zatôichi with blond hair and a red cane (which houses his ferocious blade), and reimagines the friendly samurai as a dour, remote hero prone to isolate himself in meditative silences. While Kitano retains the character's impish chuckle and sympathy for the countryside's maligned outcasts, his Zatôichi substitutes Katsu's balletic gracefulness with a swift physicality. This new Zatôichi is a viper coiled to strike with tornado-like ferocity at any moment, and in his silent-but-deadly manner, the character more than slightly resembles the gun-toting yakuza madmen of Kitano's Sonatine and Brother.
Adhering to the series' formula, Zatôichi arrives in a new town to find that things aren't nearly as cheery and peaceful as they initially appear. The Ginzo gang is, both literally and monetarily, bleeding the local merchants dry, and has recently hired a new samurai named Hattori (Tadanobu Asano) to help wipe out the rival criminal competition. Zatôichi befriends an unlucky gambler named Shinkichi (Gadarukanaru Taka), and the duo eventually join forces with two deadly geisha seeking revenge against the Ginzo clan for their parents' murder. Ginzo (Ittoku Kishibe) - whose droopy face resembles CNBC's Wall Street guru (and former Wall Street Week host) Louis Rukeyser - is a bloodthirsty gangster, but Kitano's script (based on a short story by Kan Shimozawa) primarily paints in shades of gray. Whether it's the geishas' sad tale of prostitution and gender-bending identity suppression (which adds a homoerotic tinge to the penetrating swordplay), or Hattori's decision to work for Ginzo so he can purchase a cure for his dying wife, the motivating forces behind characters' behavior is, as in the best Zatôichi adventures, not nobility or vileness but, rather, necessity and circumstance.
Kitano shoots with a steady efficiency that favors slow, graceful dolly shots and, in the film's signature visual flourish, 360-degree rotating pans around characters. His unadorned direction provides logical visual coherence to the frenetic, bloodstained action sequences, which include a duel on the beach and a stunning rain-soaked skirmish that pays tribute to Kurosawa. The furious swordfights, replete with geysers of spurting blood and blades puncturing torsos courtesy of comic book-esque CGI, benefit from an anime-influenced hyper-realism. An aerial shot of Hattori dispatching an army of foolhardy samurais has a Gauntlet videogame aesthetic, while Zatôichi's moonlit massacre at the gambling house is exhilaratingly elegant. And when Zatôichi and Hattori cross blades, the din of the swords' hurricane-force clash is akin to the clanking of locomotive wheels grinding and springing to life.
Kitano choreographs scenes of farmers tilling the land or workers building a house to the beat of Keiichi Suzuki's score, which utilizes strings, organs, and synthesizers to create a fusion of modern and classic Japanese melodies. This aural and visual synchronicity mirrors the film's harmonious themes of inclusion, tolerance and rebirth. Yet Kitano's premiere triumph is his deft directorial blending of action and comedy. Whether it's the terrified looks of Zatôichi's enemies after he's displayed his daunting swordsmanship, or the blind samurai nonchalantly tossing newly cut logs over his shoulder into a perfectly arranged pile, humorous vignettes provide the blood-soaked battles with a wry levity. Things culminate in an energetic tap-dance routine that perfectly encapsulates the film's humane spirit, as well as displays the director's heretofore unexploited gift for song-and-dance set pieces. Action-adventure, comedy, and musical - any way you slice it, Takeshi Kitano's Zatôichi rocks.
The DVD includes a second disc with Takeshi's film Sonatine, with both features including interviews with various cast and crew, and an introduction from Quentin Tarantino attached to Sonatine.
Aka Zatoichi, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi.