It could seem like a slight cop-out on my part to end this blog with yet another samurai film, immediately after my post regarding Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo“. I could use the usual excuse of complaining about not having enough choice but it would appear that there is a healthy list of films beginning with the letter “Z”. The real reason that I picked yet another Takeshi Kitano film to review in this blog is for the very fact that it is a samurai film, albeit one that is completely different from the usual style made by Japanese cinema. But first, a short history lesson. Zatoichi is one of Japan’s longest running film and television series and is an enduring character in Japanese culture to this day. From books, manga’s, anime, to a live-action stage adaptation, the show has been adapted by Hollywood in the past and has inspired other Edo period, samurai based franchises. In 2003 filmmaker Takeshi Kitano decided to reboot the series with his own take on the Zatoichi character; the result was a daftly written, wonderfully composed comedy, with one of the more unusual performances to have come from Kitano himself.
“Zatoichi” follows the story of a blind swordsman who arrives at a small village caught up in a bloody gang war and led by corrupt samurai….sound familiar? However Zatoichi isn’t the only new stranger to arrive as two geisha performers, one of them secretly a man in disguise, are hunting down one of the leaders of a gang of Yakuza for revenge after both their parents were slaughtered by him ten years ago. Zatiochi meanwhile befriends a local farmer and her nephew who is haunted by his gambling debts to the Yakuza mob and offers to give them protection for food and shelter. The rest of the narrative follows almost as a Shakespearean tale about murder, revenge, and redemption in the way that only Kitano could play out for the screen.
Playing a blind man convincingly would be difficult for nearly any actor to pull off; Kitano however uses the unique look he has acquired from his previous films to his advantage. In his features such as “Violent Cop” (1989) and “Hana-bi” (1997, see post H), Kitano is often caught on screen wearing his famous sunglasses, preventing us an audience from connecting with him completely. In Zatoichi, Kitano often keeps his head held lowdown, preventing us from ever getting a clear look at his face, helping to keep the same type of presence he carries with him throughout his evolution of work. He manages to convince us of his blindness thoroughly though, in fact, the most humorous scenes in the film often involve minor characters, particularly Yakuza thugs, attempting to see if he is faking his disability. The results often contain many laughs as well as a few pints of blood! There is a taster of Kitano’s acting as a visually impaired individual in one short sequence in his 1999 comedy “Kikujiro“, also ending up as one of the funniest sequences to watch in the film.
The supporting cast of Zatoichi give off the impression that we’ll be seeing the characters again very soon in the next installment, only to be sadly reminded at the finale that Kitano’s efforts are just for a one-off film. Without trying to insult the cast by stating they give off the feel of television characters, Zatoichi excels in creating a true sense of reinvention of a franchise that Kitano could have easily adapted into a running television series. His quirky portrayal of a blind man alone would be worth the watch. The traditional elements of a Kitano picture are all present too, except for the dyed blonde hair he has; the editing, cinematography and underlying humour are all solidly built, however the originality of a Kitano samurai mini-epic is something to be greatly admired. The uniqueness of the film’s setting makes it stand out from the usual cinema Kitano produces, the only depressing factor Zatoichi carries with it is that the director has yet to make another period piece drama as the genre setting surprisingly seems to suit the style Kitano employs. The only thing I’d change? Get rid of the cgi blood next time!