Film Review


Reviewed by Lyle Sylvander (Yokohama-shi, 2001-02)

(Summer 2004 Issue)

Takashi Kitano has had a long and varied career as an entertainer in Japan.  He burst onto the scene in the 1970’s as one-half of the comedy duo The Beat Brothers and then extended the range of his acting by taking on more dramatic roles.  While filming the Yakuza thriller Violent Cop, the director fell ill and Takano took over the directorial reins.  The rest is, as they say, history.   Takano churned out a steady stream of action films and then achieved worldwide recognition with his masterwork Hana-bi (Fireworks) in 1997.  When that film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Kitano was recognized an artistically mature filmmaker.  Hana-bi’s melancholic violence and contemplative pacing transcended the limits of the commercial action film and provided a unique visceral experience.   Since that auspicious breakthrough, however, Kitano’s output has been somewhat disappointing.  Kikujiro (1999) and Brother (2000) more or less repeated the formulaic storytelling devices of their genres (the “little kid” and Yakuza action film respectively).  2002’s Dolls was a beautifully shot but emotionally distant experiment that pleased neither critics nor audiences and flopped at the box office.

When it was announced that Kitano would write, direct, and star in a new rendition of the classic series of films Zatoichi, many accused him of selling out.  The original series of Zatoichi films (26 in all) starred Shintaru Katsu, who essentially owned the role of the blind samurai and became an iconic figure in Japan.  It seemed that reviving the series with Kitano was little more than a marketing gimmick.  Fortunately, Kitano has played against expectations and delivered his best film in years.  Far from being predictable, Kitano reinvents Zatoichi and delivers an immensely entertaining film.

The basic plot follows that of the standard jidai-geki (period film) as Zatoichi stumbles into a rural town run by mobsters.  Zatoichi teams up with a pair of sisters, one of whom is a man in disguise, who are seeking revenge for the murder of their parents.  Together, they fight the minions of the villainous Ginzo (played by Ittoku Kishibe).  Another wandering samurai, named Hattori (Tadanobu Asano), is hired as a mercenary by Ginzo and he and Zatoichi  meet in the film’s climax and final showdown.

Zatoichi is the first jidai-geki for Kitano and he not only uses its conventions well but plays against them.  This is apparent in the film’s opening, where a gang of thugs mistake the blind swordsman for an easy target and Zatoichi makes mince meat out of them.  The sequence is comically choreographed with the robbers accidentally stabbing and slicing each other.  One man’s sword flies out of his hands and into the body of one of his comrades.  The standard blood squirting effect is rendered by CGI animation and the semi-cartoonish effect reveals that Kitano is not taking the violence seriously.  In fact, the film has many slapstick moments and Zatoichi even sports a ridiculously anachronistic bleached blond hairdo.  Kitano’s serious side is reserved for a few flashbacks that provide backstory for the supporting characters – like that of the sibling seeking vengeance.   Such a device allows the audience to empathize with the characters while enjoying the comic goings-on.

Overall, Kitano uses moving cameras and quick cuts to convey a sense of spontaneity and continuous motion.  The visuals are nicely complemented by a rhythmic soundtrack consisting of rain drops, metallic farming tools and clashing swords.  This hypnotic rhythm culminates in a ten minute dance sequence that has to be seen to be believed (it alone is worth the price of admission).  As in Akira Kurosawa’s  Seven Samurai, the peasants celebrate the defeat of the warmongers at the end of the film.  What begins as a traditional takatsuki dance with wooden clogs and taiko drummers evolves into a modern dance spectacle stylistically situated between Busby Berkley and the stage show Stomp.

Visually in a class by itself, the final number is the ultimate act of subversion: only Takeshi Kitano has the audacity and courage to end a samurai film with a musical number.  By doing so, he has reinvented himself once more and even the most hardened cynic would be delighted with his Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman.

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