Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, The

Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 09/01/04 00:01:44

"Tapping the “Beat”"
3 stars (Just Average)

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.

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