The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi
Directed by Takeshi “Beat” Kitano
(in Japanese with English subtitles)
The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi is a samurai action film with a sense of humor. The main character, Zatoichi, played by director Takeshi Kitano, is a blind masseur with unworldly sword fighting skills. The blind swordsman character reminded me of comic-book super heroes who have a mild-mannered civilian identity that contrasts sharply with their warrior-hero persona. As the masseur he shuffles around with his cane, saying very little, projecting humility. But when provoked, the sword comes out of the cane and he fights with explosive action – the fight scenes are as quick and efficient as they are bloody. Set in a small village in 19th century Japan, the story has Zatoichi become a reluctant vigilante who saves innocents who are plagued by the crime gangs who run the town with no law in sight.
A key element missing in many if not most action movies is an interesting set of villains. Zatoichi passes that test with flying colors. The crime bosses are brutal, greedy but mysterious -- it’s hard to know who’s really calling the shots. The most interesting character in the film is the “bodyguard” – so very well played by Tadanobu Asano – who had been a noble samurai but now must find work with the crime gangs to help his sick wife. They did a fine job of establishing how he would really rather be doing something else but, lacking options, he does his duty as the Ginzo gang’s top enforcer with brutal panache. The part I loved most: even though it was clear that he didn’t like his job, he never flinched in battle or did anything less than serve his boss to the best of his ability. American screenwriters and directors working in the action genre should study this character – it added a sad resonance to the movie as a whole.
The 19th century setting allowed the production designers and costumers to really have a go at creating many beautiful images up on that big screen – the overall look of the film is outstanding. The fight scenes are beautifully rendered – no rapid-fire editing to create the effect of movement – the actors move and the camera records.
Zatoichi also excels in skillful use of comedy – a very light touch so as not to overwhelm the drama. One scene in which an unskilled fighter spars (using sticks) with three others struck me as a playful jab at fight choreography in movies – it reminded anyone who needed reminding that the stuff isn’t very realistic. Another comic element came in the form of a geisha who is actually a cross dresser. It struck me as a little strange – a transvestite in 19th century Japan working as a geisha? It worked very well because they underplayed it: most of the time nobody notices and it never came across as silly or slapstick.
Music is also cleverly employed in Zatoichi. Several sequences of percussion using common tools like hoes or hammers gave the viewer an atypical break from the bloody action -- which kept the film as a whole from being too sad or disturbing. The last scene of the film is a case of somebody really thinking outside of the box. Bearing in mind that the graphic violence here makes a typical American action movie look tame – how about a tap dance – did they even have tap in 19th century Japan? I was floored but I loved it. I realize that most [American] action movie lovers probably hate it when a director throws something like that in but it worked for me.
Zatoichi is actually a remake of sorts – there were more than 20 movies made in the 1960s and 1970s featuring the Zatoichi character. Japanese audiences are no doubt familiar with Zatoichi while American audiences are not. Most critics are going to love Zatoichi – it’s an outside-the-envelope arthouse film that’s skillfully made in every respect: cinematography, acting, production design, writing, and direction. I can’t see the mainstream American action moviegoer embracing this like they did Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- that was a pretty good stretch for the multiplex crowd but, with the music, the humor, and the subtitles Zatoichi will be too much for them. That’s a shame because they’re going to miss one of the best of the year.
Photographs are copyright Miramax Films.
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