Laura CliffordAn aging blind man (Takeshi Kitano) sits resting along a dusty road. The leader of a gang of thugs bribes a child to take the man’s cane away from him. The boy does so and is rudely sent away without payment for his deed. The gang leader then chides the man for having his precious cane taken away so easily. In a flash, the old man snatches the cane, pulls from it a razor sharp sword and dispatches three of the thugs. The rest run away in the face of this amazing man named “Zatoichi.”
Takeshi Kitano is a staple in the Japanese TV and film industries and has had a long and successful career, often with his hard-nosed gangster-with-a-heart. With “Zatoichi,” he takes on the character from Kan Shimozawa’s popular novels, made many times for the big screen in Japan, and brings it west. Zatoichi, also known as Ichi, is an aging, blind masseur wandering the land at a time when the honor of the samurai is waning and the rise of organized crime is becoming a blight upon the peasant population.
One gang, in particular, has descended on a small village and is moving in on its rivals to extort “protection” money from the locals. Zatoichi arrives in town and is taken in by a kindhearted peasant woman whom he grows fond of. The masseur has a liking for a little gambling – a hobby his landlady admonishes him over because of how it ruined her nephew’s life – and spends his evenings playing and winning at dice. The blind man listens to how the dice fall and bets accordingly. He becomes a mentor, of sorts, to the nephew and, eventually, must be his protector.
A young, masterless samurai, Hattori (Tadanobu Asano), arrives in town with his pretty, ailing wife (Yui Nasukawa), seeking work as a bodyguard. He comes to the attention of the head of the gang trying to wrest power from the other local criminal elements. Hattori soon proves that he is a one-man army as he dispatches one after another of his bosses enemies in a flash of steel and a spray of blood. In the meantime, Ichi must come to the aid of his landlady’s nephew in a gambling house, when he discovers they are being cheated. The ensuing bloodbath comes to the attention of Hattori’s boss.
A pair of geisha arrives in town and begins to look for work plying their trade. When a prominent local purchases their services, it is not song and dance they perform as one garrotes the man and the other stabs him to death. The two women are not what they seem as we learn of their story. Ten years earlier, the two children, a boy and girl, sneak out one night to play with their prize possession, a small white mouse. While playing with their pet, the house is invaded by masked ninja and every member of the household is slaughtered – except for the two children. Orphaned, they eek out a survival as the boy must pose as a girl and the “sisters” begin their long journey of revenge.
The lines are drawn in the village as Ichi takes in the sisters and he helps them seek out those responsible for their family’s death. Hattori, under orders from his gang boss, searches for the blind masseur and the geishas to eliminate them with extreme prejudice. The blind man and the samurai have crossed paths before and each knows the mettle of the other. The confrontation, and it is inevitable, will end with one man standing.
Takeshi Kitano crafts an interesting addition to the popular Zatoichi series that has produced 20 some movies about the blind sword master and had spawned a popular TV series in Japan. Kitano’s version introduces a plethora of characters early in the film and, unfortunately, their roles are not clearly delineated, except for Ichi. There is a political agenda in the town as the gangs struggle for power. But, the leaders of this mob warfare are kept ambiguous throughout the film, causing confusion over who is loyal to whom. Just who “Mr. Big” is in this film is kept open until the very end. But, by this time, so many bad guys have been killed that the process of elimination has few candidates left to choose from.
Kitano uses flash backs and forwards throughout “Zatoichi” to fill in the back-stories of the many key characters and this is one of the causes of confusion. The filmmaker does not make clear, often times, which flashback applies to which character, sometime introducing a significant player in the past just to be brushed aside later. The film would have benefited from better editing and a more clearly realized story.
Fans of “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” are definitely a target audience for “Zatoichi.” There are copious amounts of digitized blood and enough swordplay and fight action to fill a couple of martial arts movies. The choreography of these scenes is tight, fluid, fast and deadly, with both Kitano and Asano given ample opportunity to prove their characters’ larger than life and capable of the destruction they mete out.
Techs are very good with costume fitting the late medieval period of Japan. Set design is equally suited for the occasion. Notable too is the organic score by Keiichi Suzuki that perfectly blends in with the workaday world of the peasant farmers or the ritual dance of celebration in the town. One very out of place piece, near the end, has the entire cast taking part in a huge, choreographed dance number that introduces all of the players in the film but simply does not belong as an integral part of the movie. The number would have been far more appropriate if used under the film’s roll out credits.
“Zatoichi” is an interesting effort by a creative filmmaker. It is good but not nearly great with some very effective performances. I give it a B.
A large group of Samurai encourage a small boy to steal the cane of a blind man sitting by the roadside. The child's success emboldens them and they approach, but suddenly a blade flashes and several have been dispatched. The rest take to their heels. The ordinary looking old masseur (Beat Takeshi, "Brother") is the legendary "The Blind Swordsman: Zatôichi."
The Zatôichi stories from the novels of Kan Shimozawa have been made into a number of Japanese films since the early 1960s. Multi-hyphenate Japanese television star and film director Takeshi 'Beat' Kitano has updated the character in a crowd pleasing mishmash of ultra violence, revenge, comedy and "Stomp-like" musical interludes. Kitano and Yoshinori Oota's editing is razor sharp within individual scenes, but often confusing transitioning from one to the next, making "Zatôichi" tricky to follow.
Several story strands are introduced and randomly followed before they begin to merge at about the film's hour mark. The humble masseur finds loding with Mrs. Oume (the terrific Michiyo Ookusu), a no-nonsense peasant. Two geishas, the Naruto 'sisters' O-Kinu (Yuuko Daike, "Dolls") and O-Sei (Daigorô Tachibana), are hunting and killing the men responsible for the murder of their family. Gennosuke Hattori (Tadanobu Asano, "Taboo (Gohatto)") is a skilled ronin seeking employment as a bodyguard in order to care for his consumptive wife O-Shino (Yui Natsukawa). The underbosses of the mysterious head of the Kuchinawa clan are plotting to wipe his rivals.
Zatôichi meets up with Oume's nephew Shinkichi (Gadarukanaru Taka, "Warm Water Under a Red Bridge") at a Kuchinawa gambling house and his sharp senses help the addict to make unexpected winnings. They're approached outside by the geishas, but Zatôichi senses murderous intent when O-Kinu undoes the strings of her shamisen and O-Sei gives off the scent of a male. O-Kinu relates their story and they find a friend in Zatôichi. The foursome retreat to Oume's house where she is surprised to be reunited with her lost relative.
In a local saki bar which all the characters pass through, Hattori displays his swordsmanship to Boss Ginzou (Ittoku Kishibe). Soon he is killing his employer's enemies, much to his wife's consternation. When he runs into the blind man in the bar, he observes 'You're no ordinary masseur.' 'I smell blood on you too,' replies Zatôichi. The two will meet again.
The bleached blond Kitano maintains his typical stone-faced 'watchfulness' which erupts into spectacular displays of violence. Here, Kitano almost goes for a comic-book effect, with Pythonish blood spurting and injuries as punch lines. Bright red droplets and vivid sprays seem to hang suspended in air. In a repeated comic bit, a neighbor of Oume's who dreams of becoming Samurai races about her house screaming and brandishing a spear. Zatôichi simply bops him off the head with a well aimed log while chopping wood. In fact, Kitano plays with the swordsman's blindless, hinting that he may really be watching or allowing Shinkichi to draw eyes upon his lids as a form of disguise.
The cross-dressing character of O-Sei also crosses the line between comedy and tragedy, particularly when the young man's dance practice segues to a flashback (one of the few times Kitano makes it clear he is changing time periods) which shows the young boy prostituting himself for much needed coins. The geisha siblings reenter the action when Oogiya (Saburo Ishikura) approves them as entertainment for the big boss the Narutos seek vengeance on. The eventual big showdown (which is oddly intercut with, before giving over to, a spirited musical number where cast members dance on Geta sandals outfitted for tap!) is followed by epilogues where the Kuchinawa boss's surprise identify is revealed not once, but twice!
Sound is Kitano's seeming obsession in "Zatôichi." As the masseur makes his way along a road in early goings, a comedic percussion score (original music by Keiichi Suzuki, "Tokyo Godfathers") keeps rhythm with howers in a field. Later raindrops fall to the beat of dancers in the mud. Oume's house is rebuilt by workers wielding hammers as instruments of music.
While this "Zatôichi" is indeed fun, Kitano's storytelling is unnecessarily confusing. The tremendously sympathetic character of Hattori, given equal weight to Zatoichi in the film's first half, is dispatched too abruptly and dispassionately. Still, now that Kitano has spent some artistic exuberance reestablishing the character, he could proceed with a surer hand for more adventures.
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