I haven’t watched a traditional Japanese modern-day drama by Ozu or the like in so long, that I’ve forgotten that normal films come from that country. Zatôichi isn’t really weird, but Takeshi Kitano’s loving remake of the last film in the 26-episode series is definitely tongue in cheek, but still respects the character and gives us a good story.
Zatôichi movies all follow a pattern- the blind masseur wanders into town, making money by doing acupuncture and massages, as a low-caste blind man would do in the Edo period. Through his heightened senses, he slowly learns of the yakuza or corrupt officials oppressing the local people, and eventually has a showdown with them, slaughtering them with his hidden sword cane. It’s sort of like some Westerns in that way; the stranger coming to town, who just happens to be a master gunfighter. One of the movies was made into Blind Fury with Rutger Hauer in the 80’s.
The movies began in 1962 and ran until the late 70’s, with Zatôichi played by Shintarô Katsu, who starred and directed in the finale to the series in 1989. I saw that one on the Sundance channel a while back, and while some reviewers called it a muddy mess, it was decent fun for me. Takeshi Kitano, star and director of many brutally violent yet also pensive yakuza films such as Fireworks and also touching family films like Kikujiro, remade the last movie as a homage to the character; his take has a touch of camp and keeps the bloody swordfights, but manages to make them seem more comic than brutal.
Kitano’s style usually mingles quiet introspection, slice of life dialogue, and then of course the infamous sudden bursts of violence. This is no different; he doesn’t mind lingering on a shot of peasants working the fields while Zatoichi enters town, meeting a passing ceremony on the way. He finds music in daily life- as the farmers hoe their rows, the score matches their beats; the staccato slaps of raindrops hitting rooftops, sandals on wooden walkways. This helps keep our interest between scenes of action and drama, and paints a vivid picture of romanticized village life in the samurai era.
The story weaves three separate plots quite well- Zatôichi’s entrance to town and how he uncovers a corrupt gambling den that fleeces and murders unwary businessmen; a pair of geisha brother and sister who seek vengeance for their murdered parents; and finally, a retired ronin with a sick wife, who relents and hires out his sword to one of the town’s three warring gang leaders who has bloody ambitions on the other two. This sounds complicated, but Kitano winnows out the unessential in the storylines, and gives us brief flashbacks so we understand everyone’s motivations. The three plots converge in a superlative syzygy of slaughter, and all the sleazy town’s secrets are revealed.
He manages to keep just the right level of camp and humor throughout. Zatôichi isn’t as campy a character as let’s say, Hanzo the Razor, who was a government agent ferreting out corruption through swordplay and sexual interrogation, but a blind masseur with a sword-cane who can slice out candle wicks and slaughter a dozen swordsmen in the dark can’t take itself too seriously, or it gets silly (like Daredevil, which was inspired by it). For example, one of the village characters is a fat kid who runs in circles around his home with a spear all day, “training for battle.” And when one of the villagers finds out that a geisha girl is actually a guy, we see him in similar make-up later, wondering if he is pretty enough to be one, too.
Fans of over-the-top ninja epics like the forgettable Shinobi: Heart Under Blade and the classic Azumi may find this a little slow, and Kitano’s stylized fights too artistic. Like the old jidaigeki films, the fights are often finished with a single blow. The blind swordsman’s reverse hand sword cane style is sneaky infighting, so protracted battles wouldn’t make sense. Many people didn’t like that all the blood is computer-generated, either. Kitano wanted it to “look like flowers blossoming across the screen,” and it does soften the body count of the movie, which nears Lone Wolf and Cub proportions.
Kitano is a stone-faced actor probably best-known in the U.S. as the teacher in Battle Royale, but he is an actor-director best compared to Clint Eastwood here. Imagine if Eastwood took something like “Kung Fu,” or Billy Jack and remade it artfully with a touch of camp and played the lead himself. That would be the equivalent. It works, but he does dip a little too deeply into nostalgia at times. The film ends with a musical number including all the villagers from the cast tap-dancing in wooden sandals on a stage to Japanese taiko drumming. Darth Milk and I didn’t mind; any chance to bust out the conga drum and play along is much appreciated.
The movie is good fun and if you want some lighter samurai action fare, this is 2 hours well spent.