Zatoichi

Movie Review by Stephen Doyle

Starring: ‘Beat’ Takeshi, Tadanobu Asano, Guadalcanal Taka, Yui Natsukawa, Michiyo Ookusu

Director: Takeshi Kitano

It’s hard not to feel that Takeshi Kitano, one of the most acclaimed international filmmakers of his generation and one of my own personal favourites, is running out of ideas. Zatoichi is a popular fictional character in Japan, as well known as Dracula or Robin Hood is to Western audiences. This is Kitano’s take on the legend, and as you would expect from Kitano it is a peculiar and inventive mix of, amongst other things, pathos, humour and violence.

Like Kitano’s other two films since the turn of the century (BROTHER and DOLLS), this is far from vintage Kitano. I even feel that he has only made this film while he awaits his next great idea to come along. Kitano says he made ZATôICHI only due to the continued insistence of a female friend, which is hardly the most promising basis for a film. Having said this ZATôICHI contains much to enjoy, especially for fans of the director.

It has much in common with any of Kitano’s earlier yakuza films, but with the action taking place in 19th century feudal Japan rather than the modern day. Zatoichi, played by Kitano, is a blind drifter who makes money as a masseur and as a gambler. Another facet of his personality which he is not fond of publicising is that, although blind, he is an extremely skilled warrior and swordsman. On his travels he finds a remote mountain town where he temporarily settles. He soon gets embroiled in adventures involving a reckless gambler, two geishas out for revenge, and the town’s two violent and warring Samurai gangs.

This film is a departure for Kitano in a few ways. It is his first period piece and it is also the first time since VIOLENT COP, back in 1989, that he has made a film which is not based on his own idea. Despite this ZATôICHI remains unmistakably a Kitano film throughout. Kitano has a unique narrative style (involving unexpected editing, a mature use of flashback and a habit of letting scenes, which tend to be light on dialogue, linger on) which I see time and time again in his movies, but have never really seen elsewhere, especially in Western cinema. It is an idiosyncratic style which will alienate some viewers and the films somewhat overlong running time of 116 minutes will not help.

Yet ZATôICHI is pretty to look at and boasts some decent Samurai action including that now obligatory scene for a modern martial arts movie, in which the hero, fighting on his lonesome, is ridiculously outnumbered by the enemy, yet succeeds in taking everyone on in an uncanny display of skill (see also KILL BILL VOLUME 1 and THE MATRIX RELOADED). Also of interest is the tap dancing sequence at the end, which is as sensational and wonderful to look at, as it is pointless (try as I might I could not discern what purpose it served to the film at all).

4 out of 6 stars

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