Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on December 7, 2004

Directed and written by Takeshi Kitano/starring Kitano, Tadanobu Asano/Miramax Home Video

A blind master samurai wanders feudal Japan, working as a masseur. Much ass is kicked.

Zatoichi is based on a hugely popular series of Japanese films made between 1962 and 1989. I’ve seen several of these movies, because they show them often on IFC as part of their “Samurai Saturdays”. They’re generally good, old-fashioned samurai movies that don’t seem to vary much in content, but are fascinating to watch if you’re interested in Japanese film and/or culture. And if you just happen to like old samurai movies, they’re pretty cool. (They also inspired the Rutger Hauer vehicle Blind Fury, about which the less said the better.)

Zatoichi is kind of like Japan’s James Bond, if Bond were a humble old Asian man who gives a lot of backrubs. He’s that beloved a character in his native country. Kitano’s new Zatoichi film is the equivalent of someone like, say, Quentin Tarantino making a Bond movie.

Which means, of course, that it’s pretty fucking incredible.

Kitano is kind of like the Clint Eastwood of Japan – a genuine badass with the soul of an auteur. He’s known for long takes, slow pacing and generally leisurely storytelling. If you’re expecting those qualities in his take on Zatoichi, you’re in for a shock.

Kitano’s Zatoichi is an awe-inspiring reinvention, both of the character and Kitano himself as a filmmaker. In an interview on the DVD, he says that his primary objective here was “to make an entertaining film”. For him, that meant quick cuts, eye-popping cinematography, brutal action and a ton of bloodshed. Rest assured, Zatoichi is anything but boring, and he pulls off this shift in style incredibly well.

Yet the film is respectful to its source material as well. As amped-up and stylized as it is, it still feels like a Zatoichi movie. Despite the superficial changes in appearance, the essence of the character still remains. He’s still a humble, unassuming, likable codger who wanders the countryside looking to make some gambling money. He finds himself in a small town, where he meets nice people who take him in. Through them, he almost accidentally gets into a position where he must defend himself and the town against the ruling classes and their violent thugs. His main opponent is another master swordsman who is pressured to fight for the feudal lords because he needs the money or is in debt to his master. The standard plot contrivances of the original films are all there.

There’s also a real sense of heart to the movie, which makes it very much a Kitano film. You really come to care about these characters, as simply drawn as they are. I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of Kitano for the role, but he obviously feels a real kinship with this character. Like Eastwood’s Man With No Name, there’s a kind of existential magic to him, but he’s the last guy you’d expect to take you down in a fight. He’s old, he’s blind, he walks with a cane, and he’s the baddest motherfucker on the planet. That’s just so freakin’ cool. I love the idea of a seemingly harmless, handicapped, poor old dude that people can’t help but mess with, turning around and kicking their asses before they can blink. And it’s not because he has the biggest gun, but because he has the greatest skill. That’s just too awesome.

It’s a testament to Kitano’s talent and instincts that his Zatoichi is so earth-shakingly cool. He even has the audacity to end the movie with a dance number, and somehow it seems absolutely perfect. Considering how much choreography went into those spectacular swordfights, it’s oddly appropriate. But it takes a very smart director to know that, and a talented one to pull it off.

I could go on and on describing this movie for you, but I don’t think mere words can fully sum up the experience. You really have to see it for yourself, and whether or not you’re familiar with the original films, it’s well worth the effort to do so. This isn’t just a samurai movie; it’s a great movie about a samurai, from a director/star working at the top of his game. Plus it’s awesome fun. You can’t go wrong here. (And if you don’t like subtitles for whatever reason, you can watch it in English. Now you literally have no excuse not to rent this movie.)

In an odd move, Miramax has packaged the movie as a 2-disc set along with Sonatine, Kitano’s 1993 gangster drama that was the first of his films to hit the U.S. In all honesty, I wasn’t too impressed with Sonatine the first time I saw it on VHS. I found it to be a slow-moving, poky little movie in which not much really happens. Upon my second viewing on this disc, I felt a little more kindly towards it. I still find it a bit slowly paced for my taste, and I don’t think it’s his best film by any means, but I felt like I understood it much better in the context of his other work that I’ve seen. I just don’t quite grasp the reasons for this packaging. Since each movie is given its own disc, wouldn’t it have made more sense to release them separately? I can only imagine that Miramax (who I have to give credit to for not keeping Zatoichi on the shelf for years as they have many of their recent genre films) thought they would sell better this way for some reason. But frankly, a movie as good as Zatoichi really should be allowed to stand on its own.

Zatoichi: ****   Sonatine; **1/2 12/7/04

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