Zatoichi (2003) / Action-Drama
aka The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi
aka Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, gore, sexuality, and brief language
Running Time: 116 min.

Cast: Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano, Michiyo Ookusu, Gadarukanaru Taka, Daigoro Tachibana, Yuuko Daike, Yui Natsukawa, Ittoku Kishibe, Saburo Ishikura, Akira Emoto, Ben Hiura, Kohji Miura
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Screenplay: Takeshi Kitano (based on the series of novels by Kan Shimozawa)
Review published January 17, 2005

Takeshi Kitano's (Violent Cop, Dolls) Zatoichi marks the return to film for the famed blind swordsman, who became popular through a series of novels and many Japanese movies and television shows made about him, mostly during the 1960s and 1970s.  Of course, as with many films made by Kitano, he takes convention and makes it his own, blending the old styles with his quirky impulses, and making it fresh for a new generation of fans. 

Ichi may be blind, but he's far from helpless.  Now in his elder years, he affords himself a modest living as a masseur, although when he gets into scrapes, his trusty sword (which is disguised as his cane) takes care of all dangers.  After traveling the countryside, he settles for a bit in a small village that is under the "protection" of bullying thugs, who have recently acquired the services of a very skilled samurai, Hattori .  Meanwhile, a pair of geisha "sisters" are lurking in the shadows, prepared to exact revenge on the men who slaughtered their family as youths.  Ichi finds himself irresistibly drawn into the feud, but after decades of battles, he may have met his match.

Unless you are unfamiliar with the old Zatoichi stories, or even samurai films in general, you probably won't find much in the way of freshness in this very standard plot of a samurai trying to protect a village from murderous brutes.  Where Kitano's film scores most of its points resides mostly in the new elements he brings into it.  Modernized twists on old music, CGI rendered decapitations, and a finale which screams "Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk", this is "Beat" Takeshi in full swing.  It can get a bit absurd at times, but this absurdity is definitely one of the film's biggest attractions.

The mix of humor, drama and heavy violence is also reminiscence of Kitano's previous works, but the elements are balanced well enough so that you take the drama seriously, but not so seriously that you can't enjoy a moment of comic relief.  The violence is quite intense at times, but is so over-the-top, and full of obviously computer generated splatter, you'll most likely be laughing at the audacity of it instead of shocked.  The choreography is competent, but edited well, making each draw of the sword swift, precise, and powerful.

Zatoichi has its share of lulls, mostly in the middle third, where Kitano seems to languish in the moment for reasons which probably only he knows.  Some of these moments are just odd, as we watch a girl scrubbing the floor for several seconds, until we clue into it, thinking there is something significant about it, until several seconds more pass and then -- nothing.  There is also a dance sequence involving one of the geishas and his (yes, "his") younger self, which probably is featured much longer than most directors would have allowed.  As with any "Beat" Takeshi film, you learn to permit his indulgences, and just enjoy the things he does so well. 

Longtime fans of Zatoichi may be split in their feelings toward this revisionist telling, especially for those who can't see anyone but longtime portrayer Shintaro Katsu in the role.  However, for fans of Kitano, and especially for those unfamiliar enough to have expectations, this is an entertaining, humorous, and engaging experience that should meet well, as long as you can stomach the stylishly bloody violence.

Qwipster's rating:

2005 Vince Leo