Zatoichi, the stoic, blind master swordsman, is a Japanese folk legend and the hero of over 20 samurai movies made throughout the sixties and seventies. After 2002’s beautiful but impenetrable Dolls, Takeshi Kitano has revived the character made famous by Shintarô Katsu, delivering his most accessible film yet, but still touched with moments of ‘Beat’ Takeshi idiosyncrasy.
Despite his amazing prowess with a blade, Zatoichi scrapes a living as a masseur and gambler, wandering from town to town, keeping himself to himself. When he comes to a remote mountain village, he finds a community being held to ransom by the ruthless Ginzo gang, who are demanding daily protection money and have hired deadly samurai Hattori (Tadanobu Asano) to enforce their will. Zatoichi starts lodging with kindly Aunt Oume (Michiyo Ookusu), but is drawn into conflict with the Ginzo gang when a pair prostitutes that Zatoichi and Oume’s nephew Shinkichi (Taka Gatarukanaru) encounter turn out to be an orphaned brother and sister determined to take revenge on those who murdered their parents a decade earlier.
Zatoichi bears strong similarities to Kitano’s 1993 yakuza classic Sonatine. The action is sudden and violent (Sonatine’s nasty realism replaced with cartoonish splatter), the drama is mixed with a curious line in slapstick comedy and there is a gentle, almost hypnotic lull halfway through where the protagonists kill time in a countryside retreat. Kitano puts a surprising amount of emphasis on character – Zatoichi himself remains suitably enigmatic, but the motivations of both his allies and enemies are explored. Tadanobu Asano, who starred alongside Kitano in Nagisa Oshima’s Gohatto, is a reluctant, sympathetic killer-for-hire, carrying out the Ginzo gang’s dirty work to pay for his sick wife’s treatment, while orphans Okinu and Osei’s thirst for vengeance is movingly conveyed by Yuko Daike and Daigoro Tachibana.
Like Tarantino's Kill Bill, Kitano revives the majestical blood fountains from the Babycart movies, and there’s some neat CGI-assisted limb-lopping too. The sword action is excitingly shot and edited, and although it takes a while for Zatoichi to start dispatching his foes, the climatic showdown is well worth the wait. Curiously, Kitano seems to have also been going to through a showtunes-phase when he made this – there are several hilarious scenes of peasants working in the fields, the sounds of their shovelling perfectly in time with the percussion of Keiichi Suzuki’s music, and the whole film ends with an exuberant ten-minute tap-dance sequence – I kid you not. There are no great depths here, just good, bloody, crowd-pleasing fun.
Japanese director/actor/writer/comedian and one of the best-known entertainers in Japan. Entered showbiz in the early 70s as a stand-up comic, and began acting in the early 80s, his most famous early role being in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. As a director, Kitano's debut was 1989's Violent Cop, a gritty police thriller. The success of this led Kitano to explore similar cop/gangster territory in films like Boiling Point, Sonatine and the award-winning Hana-bi, all of which combined graphic violence, intense drama and off-beat comedy, while Kitano's more light-hearted side was revealed in the likes of the sex comedy Getting Any?, the autobiographical Kids Return and the whimsical Kikujiro.
If 2000's US-set Brother was a disappointment and Dolls visually stunning but hard-going, 2003's Zatoichi was a fast-moving, blood-splattered samurai romp. After a run of personal, financially unsuccessful art films, he returned to familiar territory with the Outrage series. As an actor, Kitano (credited as 'Beat' Takeshi, his comedy-persona) has appeared in films including Battle Royale, Gonin, Johnny Mnemonic, Gohatto and Takashi Miike's Izô.