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Overall Rating

Awesome: 22.22%
Worth A Look43.06%
Just Average: 19.44%
Pretty Crappy: 2.78%
Sucks: 12.5%

7 reviews, 30 user ratings

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Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, The
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by Stephen Groenewegen

"Tapping the “Beat”"
3 stars

Zatôichi has the wild quality of a children’s bedtime story. The exploits of the titular hero enchant and entertain, but this is no kids’ flick - the excessive violence would scare them half to death.

The movie tracks the adventures of a legendary blind swordsman in 19th Century feudal Japan. Passing himself off as an unassuming masseuse, the most striking thing initially about Zatôichi (“Beat” Takeshi Kitano) is his shock of dyed blond hair. He shuffles into town clutching a blood red walking stick, with head downcast and eyes tightly scrunched shut. But anyone foolish enough to try and steal his cane is in for a shock. Zatôichi has almost supernaturally refined senses and can slice open an opponent at lightning speed with the samurai sword concealed within his stick.

Zatôichi is an iconic character in Japan; the late Shintaro Katsu played him in more than 26 movies and over 100 TV episodes, spanning three decades. An underdog hero that fearlessly aids the weak and outcast obviously has universal appeal. Especially when that hero has such an innocuous persona. Zatôichi is middle aged and blind and an outcast himself, making his living chiefly as a gambler (calling himself a masseuse is probably a ruse, as we never see him giving a massage).

Deceptive appearances emerge as the movie’s key theme. A tyrant with a shady past rules the town by force, but we’re misled as to who really controls the power. Zatôichi unwittingly finds a friend in a foolish gambler (Gadarukanaru Taka) and his wise aunt (Michiyo Ookusu). He also meets two sweet-looking geisha girls, plying a prostitute’s trade. O-Kinu (Yuuko Daike) and O-Sei (Daigorô Tachibana) are not prostitutes at all, but trick and rob their clients to survive. These “sisters” are also not what they seem in a more prosaic sense.

For a Western audience, Zatôichi is an oddball movie experience. There is bloodletting aplenty - gangs of bullies are dispatched single-handedly, with limbs flying and stylised blood splashing across the screen. The comic complications of the characters lend proceedings an off-kilter tone; the plot plays more like a bloodthirsty comedy of errors than action-adventure or typical revenge drama. Occasionally, the action stops for a comic interlude or even a musical sequence or two - workers and labourers rhythmically hammering out a tune with their tools for instruments. The climactic confrontations between Zatôichi and his enemies are brushed aside indecently quickly so the principal players can don their wooden clogs and take to the stage for a lengthy bout of tap dancing!

Takeshi Kitano, like the character he portrays, is an icon of the Japanese entertainment industry. He’s gained a cult Western following for spearheading a wave of ultra-violent crime films, for which he’s been dubbed “the Japanese Dirty Harry” (Violent Cop, Boiling Point, Sonatine; as well as the Battle Royale movies). Art house audiences may recognise him from festival hits like Hana-Bi (Fireworks), Taboo and Kikujiro. In Japan, he started as a comic, and is well known as a TV personality, columnist, satirist, painter and novelist. He’s a Renaissance man - as well as starring in and directing Zatôichi, Kitano co-edits the material and wrote the screenplay.

Although it’s fun, Zatôichi is also bewildering and more than a little trying. Plot points are obvious and over-emphasised, and the supporting characters are mostly one-dimensional. For a non-aficionado, the fighting scenes are inventive but inexorable (those baddies just keep on coming). Kitano’s meshing of styles is occasionally artful, but often clumsy. One sequence of a geisha dancing, with flashbacks constantly cutting in and a contemporary synthesised score drowning out the traditional music, is a mess. Kitano tries too hard to achieve a playful tone - too often he bludgeons you with forced jollity, especially in the comic set pieces centring on Taka’s gambler. And the ending has to be the longest, corniest display of celebratory dancing this side of the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Still, Kitano scores high for courage, hard work and versatility in continually reinventing himself. Taka invests the gambling fool with infectious frivolity and Michiyo Ookusu has a knowing, sympathetic face that’s perfect for Aunt Oume (she recalls the kindly expressiveness of Linda Hunt). Kitano has such charisma and magnetism - you never know what he’ll do next - that I missed him when he was off screen too long. I’m not sure I fully grasped the significance of what I was seeing - or else appreciated its lack of significance. Nevertheless, when it works, Zatôichi has a quirky charm all its own.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=8521&reviewer=104
originally posted: 09/01/04 00:01:44
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Vancouver Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 CineVegas Film Festival. For more in the 2004 CineVegas Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Sydney Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Sydney Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Seattle Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Brisbane Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Brisbane Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Tribeca Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/09/14 Richard Brandt Almost defiles memory of the entire series but recovers from/with a last-minute stumble. 4 stars
1/22/09 Andrew M The first comment on this list is unbelievably crass and moronic. 1 stars
12/17/06 jovana that would be the "male" geisha... brlp...brpl... 5 stars
10/16/06 Ryan_A Couldn't get into it. Most likely the CGI blood... 3 stars
2/15/06 Reklc Amazing! 5 stars
10/09/05 Agent Sands One of Takeshi's best. Equal in extremes of gore and hilarity. 5 stars
9/08/05 Klondo funny and explosive and weird - the ending needs a rewrite 4 stars
7/18/05 Samurai Guy Stunk 2 stars
7/04/05 George Koebke Zatoichi belongs to Shintaro Katsu alone. This version is a total disparagement.. 2 stars
6/16/05 K. Sear The plot is pretty fragmented but the film is still enjoyable. 4 stars
5/08/05 JFK good movie, bad ending 4 stars
4/14/05 The Sorrow A must-have for the DVD collection 5 stars
4/06/05 matt beat takeshi's movies are as screwed up as his face after that motorcycle accident 1 stars
2/22/05 ALDO this is total Crap....compare this to princess blade....Now thats a good JAP film 1 stars
1/21/05 the Grinch Takeshi is a good actor, mediocre director, horrible editor. See Shogun Assasin instead 3 stars
8/12/04 Octo Ojeda A jewel, go and enjoy this movie. ***** 5 stars
8/04/04 pns brilliantly made movie, yeah the tap dancing ending was odd, still i loved it 5 stars
7/27/04 Rob Saw at AFFD and loved it. 5 stars
7/22/04 Jon Whats with the broadway tapdance ending? lol, good movie otherwise... 4 stars
7/13/04 Graham Jeez, I usually like Erik, but this review was way off-base. Mature, inventive, witty film 5 stars
7/08/04 Nikolai Since Freddy and Mr. Christ are finally dead Bonesetter is my true God ! 5 stars
6/30/04 Ingo An absolute must see - terriffic editing, score, players etc 5 stars
6/02/04 Takeshis Castle BEAT IS GOD. 5 stars
5/26/04 Dmg Terrible review, excellent movie, a must see 5 stars
4/13/04 Daveman The lack of originality is made up for by it's brilliant narrative and style. 4 stars
4/11/04 Wind it rocked! lots of fun. 5 stars
4/02/04 Eden The reviewer failed to review. He's Blind to theme. This is not Mr. Takeshi's fault. 4 stars
3/22/04 John O Bad Reviewer - And 'Last Samura'i "Awesome"? Laughable 5 stars
3/13/04 Gortum Filum If David Lynch, Ozu, Kurosawa and Miike made a movie together this would be it 5 stars
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  23-Jul-2004 (R)
  DVD: 09-Nov-2004



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