Zatoichi Review

The character of Zatoichi made his cinema debut in 1962. Played by Katsu Shintaro he became one of the most popular, fictitious icons of all time in Japan but also became relatively well known in the United States and Europe. In total, 26 films starring Katsu were made, ending in 1989. He sadly passed away in 1997.

In 2003 Zatoichi is back, re-invented by cult director, Kitano “Beat” Takeshi in a violent, amusing and stylish take on the long running series.


Kitano had the task of resurrecting Zatoichi on the big screen but what could he do with a character that belonged to Katsu? who had worked for many years in moulding this character that became so loved by Japanese audiences.

Kitano confesses that originally he wasn’t interested in making Zatoichi. He knew hardly anything about the long running film series, but it was Madame Saito, executive producer and owner of the Vaudeville Theatre Troupe who persuaded him to go ahead with the project. With no prior knowledge or insight into Zatoichi’s character, Kitano just took the basics and created Zatoichi in his own style.

The mixture of quirky characters and period setting, along with a unique score and great cinematography is what ends up making Zatoichi so special. Kitano was allowed the freedom to shape the story however he felt necessary and the result is just typically Kitano in the end.


Set in 19th century Japan. Zatoichi (Kitano) is a blind masseur, a wanderer who travels from town to town carrying his red walking cane and sporting bleach blonde hair. He is perhaps the greatest swordsman in Japan with lightening reflexes, as he strikes with his sword, hidden away inside his normal looking, blood red cane.

The film follows three main story arcs that intersect:

After defeating a gang of thugs in a glorious and frenzied fight, Zatoichi heads toward a small town where he soon discovers the locals are being threatened by a gang known as the “Ginzo”. On arrival Zatoichi soon meets O-Ume (Michiyo Ookusu), an elderly woman who offers him a place to stay. Not long after he befriends a local gambler named Shinkichi (Gadarukanaru Taka) who is also the nephew of O-Ume.

The Ginzo has enlisted the help of a rogue samurai, a ronin by the name of Gennosuke Hattori (Tadanobu Asano). Hattori is a man forced into this predicament due to his love for O-Shino (Yui Natsukawa), his wife who is very sick. Needing money to help cure her illness he joins the Ginzo, taking on assassination tasks.

One night, Zatoichi and Shinkichi employ the services of two Geisha girls, O-Sei and O-Kinu (played by Daigoro Tachibana and Yuuko Daike) and discover they are in town to avenge their parents’ death at the hands of the Ginzo ten years ago.

As these stories come together, Zatoichi and his friends become embroiled in a town struggle to finish off the Ginzo once and for all.


Kitano usually directs films that are based on his own scripts and characters, which makes Zatoichi quite a departure for him. But here he takes on the genre with gusto, playing around with several traditional ideas and shaking them up in a unique bag of raisins. With Zatoichi he takes on the Yakuza theme again but this time focuses on the victims rather than the gang members and the results of their actions. Rarely has he looked into this side before.

Having never seen any of the original Zatoichi films I cannot comment on Kitano's interpretation of the legendary assassin. What I can say however is that Kitano has crafted a wonderful and engaging character without the need to force Zatoichi's back story upon the viewer or rely on familiarity with the original film series. Instead, his calm, quiet and reserved Zatoichi makes for an endearing character with two sides - that of tranquillity and danger. This dichotomy is a common part of Kitano's lead characters and there's no doubt that this new Zatoichi feels like an extension of his previous roles.

Kitano always manages to bring wonderful characters to his stories and Zatoichi has its fair share of quirky ones. Those involved are noticeably reminiscent of previous characters that have featured in Kitano’s films. Like his prior effort, Dolls in which he played out traditional Japanese theatre styles, often subconsciously in the background he so chooses to explore similar themes here, although makes them more evident. He takes characters that are often played out in theatre and places more emphasis on them for this film.

Where Kitano uses O-Sei and O-Kinu more so for drama, he chooses to use Shinkichi and his aunt to provide much of the comic relief. O-Ume is observant and it’s in her humorous outlooks that we find more amusement for the quirky characters like the dim witted young man who runs around in a circle every day, wishing he were a samurai. Her nephew, Shinkichi gambles every day and seems to be a bit of a loser but his heart is in the right place and he goes out of his way to help Zatoichi in return for bringing him good fortune.

Transvestites, gamblers, tap dancing countrymen – all part of traditional Japanese theatre despite the assumption of them being more contemporary folk. This is perhaps one of the most accessible films Kitano has made to date.


Perhaps Kitano's only stumbling block would be the overall development of the story from start to finish. Pacing wise, it doesn’t feel much different from his other films. Characters enter the fray, we see villagers preparing for what will ultimately take place in the final ten minutes and we start to get an idea of the main characters’ lives.

The problem arises at its mid point when the character we assume to be the main adversary, Hattori stops being important. When we first meet him he is a man who appears humble, looking for bodyguard jobs so that he may afford to get his wife treated for her illness. We’re ready to learn more about their history but are not really given a proper chance to become deeply involved with them. Instead the focus shifts somewhat in its latter stages in order for Zatoichi to move through the town and slay the various members of the corrupt Ginzo.

Hattori is such an interesting character that I feel almost cheated by Kitano because he a) simply didn’t want to explore his background or b) was more geared toward tighter editing and felt that the action should have taken up more scenes. Zatoichi clocks in at two hours in length so to see just ten minutes or so of extra character background would have been nice. As it is we only get a small idea of what his home life is like. His wife is given nothing more to do than plead that he doesn't go on with his new jobs for her sake.

Saying that, Kitano does make up for this by delving more into the history of O-Sei and O-Kinu. These two characters are fleshed out very well, of all the characters in the film they have the most background information to them and their motivations are explained more so than Zatoichi’s or Hattori’s. Many of their scenes are of a high emotional standard and are some of the more beautifully shot pieces to be seen in the film.

Supporting characters, Shinkichi and O-Ume are without much history but in their case I feel it’s unnecessary for while they are entertaining in their own right and have issues with the Ginzo, they are not needed as much in order to drive the story along. I don't mean they are not important to the flow of the film because they are - they provide Zatoichi with a roof over his head and much of the light relief.


Kitano’s methods of storytelling here can at times be of a dizzying nature. Here we see some fine examples of quick-fire editing that if you blink you’ll miss what is going on. Several times during the film the mood changes and cuts back to a key moment in each character’s past.

Aside from the geisha girls, the other two moments are from Zatoichi’s and Hattori’s past. Zatoichi merely reflects back on a time when he fought several thugs, similar to his current situation now whereas Hattori looks back at a time when he was humiliated, later vowing to get revenge. It seems that the Geisha girls’ past has much more depth than the central figures in the story – Zatoichi’s life could be looked at as saying he lives the life he leads. It seems inevitable that he's destined to show up and fix other's lives if it means getting into a few fights, and it's all he can seem to recall. Meanwhile Hattori seems to look at himself as being of little worth and a man who constantly has to prove his worth to others.


The film features a number of violent scenes, all of which feature frenzied action and glorious amounts of CGI blood letting. I know what most of you must be thinking – “Uh oh, CGI blood. Surely it doesn’t work well”. Well actually it does, despite knowing that it could be done just as simply with traditional movie techniques.

The violence in the film is of a rather anime/manga like quality. It’s used primarily for effect so there need be no qualms over how Kitano chooses to depict his violence as long it has the required effect. The pain felt by his victims comes through in their faces, the deliberately over the top blood spurts are extra value, designed to excite the viewer, much like computer games or animation. They’re rapid shots that might not look like they were needed but somehow give the film a unique feel. The action in Zatoichi is fresh; the CGI effects certainly did not bother this reviewer.

The action scenes are elevated furthermore by the excessive use of humour in them. It shouldn’t be funny to see people getting sliced to pieces but Kitano shoots his scenes with such a keen eye for performance and timing that it can’t be helped.

Kitano is known for having made films with violence but traditionally for him they've always been set in modern times, using gangsters and guns rather than samurai and steel. Just when you think he couldn’t possibly get any better he proves you wrong by continually displaying more talent. Not only does he direct, write and star in the film but also he does his own stunts. With brilliantly staged choreography, created by him, Kitano lights up the screen, eyes closed, swinging a sword in perfect timing to his co-stars, always keeping a perfect rhythm. His editing techniques are amazing. He shows us that it is him fighting onscreen, but also makes the scenes rapid with a few quick edits here and there to make the action simply flow better and feel exciting, rather than try to hide the fact that he isn’t a master of the sword by using more sporadic means.

Obviously being a man known best in Japan for his comedy (he started off as a comedian in the 70’s) he doesn’t disappoint with this film, even bringing great comedic value to his own character. The sword fights have an exuberant amount of amusing moments that I shan’t spoil for those yet to see it. As if making the action amusing isn’t enough the film goes on to display a healthy dose of humour throughout, even some sweeter moments can be found.

In fact most of the hilarity comes from the violent scenes, stemming more from a shock/wow factor. Throughout the course of the film, Kitano perfectly balances out the humour. A lot of it is subtle and as mentioned earlier some of it is sweet natured. I couldn’t help but smile many a time, which isn’t to say that the film isn’t serious by any means but just that it’s so well tied in with everything else he is trying to achieve.


Long time composer and Kitano collaborator, Joe Hisaishi is surprisingly absent this time round, in favour of Keiichi Suzuki.

Suzuki brings more life to the film than I would have thought possible or even expected. He’s not alone though. Kitano had asked tap-dancing group The Stripes to work with Suzuki on the score. The group performed numerous dances to which Suzuki composed his score over. Reviewing this aspect of the film is tough because in my opinion you really have to see it to fully appreciate it and I don't think I can do it enough justice.

Suzuki has created a rhythmic score that is again unique because of the way he implements it within the real actions of the various village inhabitants, namely the villagers played by The Stripes. Bordering on some kind of stage production it continues to suck the viewer in and saves the best 'til last in a finale that will have you grinning from ear to ear. The Stripes are nothing short of amazing and their collaboration with Suzuki leaves the film with an abundance of life.


The DVD

Bandai present Zatoichi in a fine two disc special edition that offers a neat slipcase with the first pressing.

Picture

Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen the film has been given superb treatment here on DVD. Kitano gave the film a saturated look throughout which is well represented by the transfer, this was a stylistic choice and you will find that other DVD releases match this look. Colour levels are very good, with strong blacks and shadow detail. Much of the night-time scenes hold up with ease. Watching on a 28 inch TV, I can’t say I had any problems with grain, print damage or dirt, as should be expected really.

The optional English subtitles read very well with no grammatical errors while timing is good.

Sound

The film has a choice of Japanese 2.0 or Japanese 5.1 audio tracks. The latter sounds excellent and is very atmospheric, particularly during the number of rainy scenes. The score is complimented nicely and the final festivities sound wonderful.


Extras

As well as having the usual scene selections and sound options, the first disc also features four trailers. Two are TV spots and two are theatrical trailers. All trailers are pre-CGI work.

Disc two features all the goodies but sadly none of the extra features are subtitled.

Making of
An enjoyable 42-minute feature of behind the scenes work. We get to see a lot of the fighting choreography and interviews from cast and crew during the making of period.

Documentary
This 58-minute feature takes us once again behind the scenes throughout the 2 month shooting period, where we meet key crew members as they set up various shots throughout the production. We also see Kitano working hard and crew members kidding around. The Stripes’ choreography is looked at also. There is a good insight into the whole shooting process, which wraps up with end of shoot celebrations.

Short Promo
I'm not quite sure what this is as my Kanji is poor and I can't read the title of the feature which starts with "Off". It seems to be a TV ad, featuring Zatoichi maiming a few guys.

Interview Spots
Short one on one interviews with principal cast members. Running for just over 3 minutes it shows Gadarukanaru Taka goofing around and Tadanobu Asano going through his fighting stance book. There’s an amusing piece at the end that shows the CGI artists having fun with a scene from the film.


Overall

Zatoichi is one of the most entertaining films from 2003. I find it impossible to dislike, despite the few small niggles I talked about earlier. Kitano is definitely a director who continually betters himself with each film, throwing us new surprises along the way.

Film
9 out of 10
Video
9 out of 10
Audio
9 out of 10
Extras
7 out of 10
Overall

9

out of 10

Last updated: 16/07/2018 17:50:54

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