Directed by Takeshi Kitano
Starring "Beat" Takeshi, Tadanobu Asano, Yui Natsukawa, Michiyo Ookusu, Gadarukanaru Taka, Yuuko Daike, Daigorô Tachibana, Ittoku Kishibe, Saburo Ishikura
Rated R, running time: 115m
Distributed by Miramax Films
Exciting and full of the director's trademark whimsy and sudden eruptions of violence, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi has acclaimed filmmaker Takeshi Kitano (Hana-bi, Brother) heading in yet another direction, this time as the most recent interpreter of the protagonist from the beloved and long-running film and television series (1962 - 1989), made famous by legendary Japanese actor, the late Shintaro Katsu. Often visually astonishing and thematically engrossing, Kitano's epic re-imagining of the character will serve as both ample fodder for fans of the 60's era Japanese chambara-style films as well as the legion of those enamored of Kitano's own brand of filmmaking. Expanding beyond genre limitations however, Zatoichi should appeal to fans of mainstream action films as well. Be warned however, that while it is often cartoonish with exaggerated arterial spray and the like, the almost constant swordplay is, to ape a line from Pulp Fiction, bloody as hell.
Zatoichi, a blind 19th Century nomad (Kitano in his acting persona of "Beat" Takeshi) wanders the countryside with the aid of his trusty hidden-sword cane, making a living as a gambler and a masseur and of course, getting involved in the lives of the people whose cross his path. His occupations mark him as a member of the underclass in 19th century Japan, and one who garners no respect from the elite samurai, one of the most exalted positions in society. Even though the legend of the blind swordsman has traveled far and wide, he travels in relative anonymity and only reveals his true nature when absolutely necessary, as when in the opening sequence two samurai try and test the cutting edge of a new sword on the "helpless" blind peasant. Bad idea.
The basic plot involves a gangster named Ginzou (Kishibe) who has taken control of a poor mountain village (I told you it was basic). Needless to say, our hero through no fault of his own, winds up in the sights of Ginzou and his allies, and the cause of the oppressed villagers becomes the same as Zatoichi's. This is, however, largely due to the fact that his safety and theirs are intertwined.
For this current chapter in the ongoing saga of Zatoichi (based on the first in the series, The Story if Zatoichi, 1963), Kitano has tweaked the legend a bit both stylistically and in the story. For one, he has dyed his hair electric blond. Not exactly typical in classic Japanese samurai cinema. He has also added some more plot elements to the story, such as a pair of traveling geishas (Daike and Tachibana) who have their own reasons for seeking revenge on Ginzou. As with many pieces of this occasionally muddled picture, they are not exactly what they seem.
Much of the character's motivations and actions may well remind viewers of Clint Eastwood's "man with no name" who was, according to legend, inspired by Toshiro Mifune's portrayal of the title character in Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo. Whether or not Eastwood's character was modeled directly on Kurosawa's protagonist, there exist vast parallels between those two characters and Kitano's Zatoichi, similarities that allow for a greater depth of character than the standard movie hero, allowing for them to be a "hero as anti-hero," a staple of Japanese period dramas as well as many classic American westerns.
In a (conscious or sub-) nod to Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, Kitano takes composer Keiichi Suzuki's percussion-based score and syncs it with scenes of peasants working (and dancing) in the field and other activities, thus giving one the occasional respite from the violence, courtesy of the Japanese hip-hop/jazz/Stomp-style dance troupe Stripes. This non-traditional yet wholly cinematic use of music in a non-Musical film makes another, striking appearance in Zatoichi but to describe it would ruin one of the most surprising and joyous moments in this overall exuberant and fantastic film and that would be cruel of me.