Published Jan 01, 2006Takeshi Kitano revives Zatoichi, the Japanese folk hero, in an audacious, dazzling film. Set in the early 1800s, Zatoichi is a blind masseur and roving gambler who turns into a ruthless swordsman whenever innocent lives are threatened. He’s the Japanese Indiana Jones and his films are a blend of bloody swordplay and warm laughs.
Zatoichi wanders into a remote mountain town terrorised by the Ginzo gang, who recruit the deadly Samurai Hattori (Tadanobu Asano). As the Ginzo gang shakes down local merchants and slaughters its rivals, Zatoichi befriends Shinkichi, a lazy but lovable gambler, and his sensible Aunt Oume. Zatoichi and Shinkichi meet up with two geishas, Okinu and Osei, who come to town to avenge their parents’ murders by Ginzo. Before long, Zatoichi crosses paths with the Ginzo gang, leading to a bloody showdown.
Writer, director and star Kitano adds new touches to the Zatoichi legend (blonde hair, a red cane/sword, digital effects, modern music) but maintains the light comedy and slashes of ultra-violence. His script is complex, weaving the back stories of the geisha sisters, Shinkichi, and Hattori through skilful flashbacks. At times there is too much cross-cutting between characters, but Kitano adds such detail to his characters that all is forgiven. Notably, Kitano manages to make his villain, Hattori, sympathetic and human.
Ironically, Kitano deliberately underplays Zatoichi, who appears less like a character and more of a mythic force battling evil. However, when Zatoichi is on screen, the film erupts with brilliant fury in unforgettable action sequences. In Japan, Kitano is famous as a comedian and an action hero (best known here for his Violent Cop series), and he applies the right measure of humour and action in Zatoichi. (Seville)