Writer-director Takeshi Kitano, who also stars in his films under the name Beat Takeshi, provides his own characteristically oddball take on an old Japanese samurai series of TV programs and movies in “Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman.” The picture has loads of plot and indulges in abrupt shifts of tone, but is pretty cavalier about structure–a fact which may bother some viewers. But if you’re in the mood for a movie that blends martial arts action, whimsy, broad comedy and even music, along with splashes of CGI blood so artistically applied that the effect looks like an oil painting–and don’t mind that it isn’t all wrapped up into a coherent package–then the weird mixture Kitano serves up here should tickle your fancy.
The glue that holds the narrative together (as much as it is) is the title figure, played by Takeshi with bleach-blond, short-cropped hair, a shambling old man’s gait and a tendency to prefer squinting and giggling to conversation . Zatoichi is a sightless masseur who wanders the countryside with a cane concealing his sword, which he wields with preternatural skill and accuracy despite his infirmity. He comes to a village where a war for control is raging among rival clans, the most powerful of which is the Ginzo gang, now strengthened by the addition of a masterless samurai named Hattori (Tadanobu Asano), who’s placed his sword at the call of the Ginzo lords and quickly demolishes the competition. Zatoichi takes up residence with Oume (Michiyo Oguso), an elderly woman, and soon links up with her goofball nephew Shinkichi (Guadalcanal Taka), with whom he shares a devotion to the gambling houses (though he inevitably wins the dice throws while his younger friend always loses at the tables). The three are ultimately drawn into conflict with the Ginzo when they befriend two traveling geishas, Osei (Daigoro Tachibana) and Okinu (Yuko Daine), who are actually the children of a family slain years before by a gang and on the lookout for revenge. Ultimately Zatoichi must take on the Ginzo crew, including Hattori, and unmask the secret leader of the criminal cartel (who proves, as in 1940s serials, the most unlikely figure who’s been paraded before us).
“Zatoichi” is a melange of very different tones and styles. There’s a gently humorous air about most of the material surrounding the main character, until he pulls out his sword for battle–at which point the picture switches into deadly serious fight mode, with plenty of amazing feats of swordsmanship and lots of animated sanguinary additions to the live action to give the scenes a lovely, almost surrealistic artistic flourish. But that isn’t all. The subplot with the geishas has a strongly sentimental, even poignant side, including a revelation about one of them that takes a really dramatic turn; still, it also allows for some comic twists. And there are spurts of very broad farce, as in the figure of an addled neighborhood boy who desperately wants to be a sumarai and three other stoogish local youths (their scene with Shinkichi is pure Larry, Curly and Moe). And to top it off, Kitano adds a big closing song-and-dance number in extravagantly theatrical style. It’s not too much to say that you don’t know what’s going to happen next in “Zatoichi”–its willingness to try anything, from understated humor to broad farce, from outlandish action to quiet sadness, keeps the viewer on his toes.
That’s a strength, but also a weakness, since Kitano never manages (or bothers) to tie everything together terribly well, or to connect the various strands in a convincing way–he just allows one element to stumble into the next. (There’s a sequence plopped in of Zatoichi dispatching a crowd of opponents in a rainstorm that’s beautifully choreographed, for example, but we’re never informed where the action occurs or who the swordsmen are.) The inconsistency is curiously enjoyable, but it gives the movie a ragged, sometimes positively clumsy feel. Still, the cast throw themselves into things with such joyous abandon–even if Kitano gives himself a bit too much latitude from time to time–that they keep it afloat over any trouble spots. The production isn’t of epic size, but it’s convincing enough, and Katsumi Yanagijima’s cinematography and Keiichi Suzuki’s score are distinct pluses.
You don’t have to be a fan of the old Zatoichi to appreciate this new incarnation of the character. In this case Kitano’s characteristically idiosyncratic approach to genre material pays rich dividends.