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Zatoichi (2003)
Writer and director: Takeshi Kitano

review by Amy Harlib

Japanese megastar Takeshi Kitano, comedian, actor, and auteur of numerous films and best known for those mostly of the contemporary yakuza/gangster genre, encouraged by a close friend and inheritor of the rights to a famous cinema franchise, made his revisionist version - Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman. The Zatoichi series starring Shintaro Katsu who became synonymous with the eponymous role, which consisted of 26 films from 1962-89 and more than 100 TV episodes before the star's death in 1987 - was in its heyday a Japanese pop culture phenomenon and an esoteric cult sensation in the west. The stories concerned an early 19th century Edo Period, lone, itinerant, blind masseur of unassuming demeanour hiding his preternatural skill using his concealed cane-sword to help downtrodden folks who, like the hero, struggled to survive on the margins of society and on the fringes of the criminal underworld.

Takeshi's take on Zatoichi, while paying homage to its Shintaro Katsu source, definitely bears its director/editor/writer/action choreographer's personal imprint. The character (with the performer keeping his bleached-blond crewcut hair), comes across as more enigmatic and detached but still deceptively humble, dryly witty and driven to right wrongs wielding his newly bright red cane-sword defending the defenceless. This updated Zatoichi picture, unlike Katsu's oeuvre with extended, bloodless action, features briefer but still stylish Kill Bill levels of bloodletting showing the serious consequences of violence. Yet Takeshi judiciously keeps the fight scenes short and powerful to devote time to the compelling character-driven story and to bring a rural Edo Period village background to life with the dazzling visuals.

This film's plot finds Zatoichi entering an isolated, mountain village troubled by rival yakuza gangs with the Ginzo group dominant and seeking to wipe out their enemies. The protagonist aids the elderly Aunt O-Ume (Michiyo Ookusu) who, in gratitude, puts him up in her home where he befriends her ne'er-do-well nephew Shinkichi (Gadarukanaru Take). He gladly joins Zatoichi in pursuit of their mutual passion for dice gambling. These games take place in taverns run by the gangs and shortly Zatoichi and Shinkichi witness some clashes, the winner being Boss Ginzo (Ittoku Kishibe), thanks to his recently hired ronin, the master swordsman Gennosuke Hattori (the handsome pop idol Tadanobu Asano). Hattori, a reluctant mercenary, does Ginzo's unsavoury bidding to earn desperately needed money to pay for his tubercular wife) O-Shino's (Yui Natsukawa) medicine.

Meanwhile, a pair of sibling geishas: O-Sei (Daigoro Tachibana) and O-Kinu (Yuuko Daike) arrive with a deadly secret of their own in addition to a secret agenda to avenge their parents' murder perpetrated by the Ginzo gang leader. Events compel the geishas, Shinkichi and Zatoichi to form a strange alliance in residence at Aunt O-Ume's home where they plan to defeat the gangs for the benefit of everybody. Zatoichi soon becomes the champion, going against the yakuzas in gory martial arts sequences expertly interwoven with flashbacks revealing key points of the above-mentioned entertainers' and Hattori's backgrounds (a brilliantly edited bit inter-cutting between the adult geisha with her childhood self doing the same traditional dance).

Zatoichi's bouts build to a thrilling climax that, in addition to the graphic but gracefully staged mayhem, contains significant surprises. The grand finale, a celebratory dance and a delightful postmodern coda, adapts traditional, mostly percussive music to accompany the entire cast, except the titular lead, tap dancing in choreography by The Stripes (a homegrown performance hit) in movement and exultation extending rhythms, sensibility and energy shown throughout the picture.

This film not only offers superb characters and many scenes of wit and poignant emotion to balance out the dynamic yet gruesome action, it features dazzling costumes, sets, cinematography (a nod to Kurosawa here, with the hero against a group of opponents in the pouring rain, stands out) - all accompanied by Keiichi Suzuki's marvellous, atmospheric, synthesiser score incorporating traditional music. Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi proves a worthy successor to stand beside the Shintaro Katsu classics (most now readily available on video and DVD), without diminishing the previous incarnation. Fans of the original, of chambara/period cinema and of martial arts must not miss getting to know the old and the new Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman - at last enjoying wider distribution in the west than ever before - truly a cause for celebration!

The Region 2 DVD from Artificial Eye has Dolby digital 5.1 sound - in Japanese with English subtitles. Disc extras include a 40-minute making-of documentary featuring interviews with the main cast, a gallery of film stills and poster artwork, a Kitano filmography, and the theatrical trailer.
Zatoichi poster

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Zatoichi on DVD


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