Takeshi Kitano’s film career has proven somewhat idiosyncratic over the last few years. Prior to Hana-bi, the only hint of Kitano’s diversity – aside from the slapstick misfire, Getting Any – was A Scene at the Sea, his take on the Japanese surfing movie. Since his 1997 Golden Lion winner, he has directed an American version of his Yakuza dramas (Brother), an offbeat drama concerning a child’s search for his mother (Kikujiro), and an elegiac art movie in which an example of Japanese puppet theatre bookends a collection of stories about lost love. And yet, even with such an eclectic background, Zatoichi is something of a surprise.
An adaptation of the cherished Japanese series that ran on TV for over twenty years, Zatoichi follows the adventures of a blind masseur whose skill with a sword and a pair of dice are second to none. Chancing upon a town caught in the grip of a gang war, Zatoichi initially causes trouble between the gangland leaders before despatching them in a frenzied bloodbath of sword fighting.
As with much of Kitano’s work, the overarching narrative is secondary to the smaller vignettes and observations with which he litters his films. The characters Zatoichi draws to his side are as eccentric as those appearing in any of the director’s films, from the cowardly gambler to the sibling assassins who have their own reasons for joining the blind swordsman’s battle against the gangs. There are also the charismatic villains, led by Tadanobu Asano’s ronin, whose skill with a sword is the only threat to Zatoichi.
Zatoichi continues the tradition of the wandering warrior whose name, for the most part, remains unknown to the adversaries who fight him. The staple of many western and gangster films since Shane and Sergio Leone, the nameless ronin first made an impact in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and its more light-hearted follow-up, Sanjuro. It is this later film with which Zatoichi bears closest comparison. Not only does the blind warrior pit himself against injustice and on the side of people who would otherwise stand no chance of surviving, the laconic way in which he executes his plan is similar to the second appearance by Toshiro Mufune’s classic anti-hero. However, there is also no mistaking the imprint of Kitano’s own persona. Over the course of the eight films that he has directed and appeared in, Kitano has created an impressively stoic screen presence. Zatoichi continues his preference for a hero who speaks through his actions – and when the action arrives, it is bloody. Employing CGI over conventional blood bags, the swordfights are remarkably stylised. The effect is strange and quite unlike most samurai films, a feeling compounded by the film’s closing sequence, which beggars belief (and is not to be revealed here).
With Kill Bill on general release, and the Tom Cruise vehicle, The Last Samurai, soon to hit cinema screens, Zatoichi proves that there is more to the samurai movie than kitsch re-workings of Seventies classics and Hollywood revisionism (already labelled as Dances with Swords). Violent, carnivalesque and supremely enjoyable, Kitano’s film may not have the dramatic or emotional weight of his best work, but you’ll be hard pushed to find a more entertaining two hours in the cinema.