As eclectic and unpredictable as ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano can be, it was nevertheless still a surprise when he announced in March 2003 that he was going to do a new film version of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman and masseur whose adventures have already been chronicled in a series of 26 period samurai films between 1962 and 1988, starring Shintarô Katsu. What is still more surprising, following on from the more adventurous, culturally-elevated subject matter of his previous arthouse film Dolls is the fact the film, barring a few typically eccentric, modernistic touches, remains to a large degree a straightforward, traditional, violent martial arts entertainment.
The storyline follows three threads – three sets of characters whose destiny leads them to a small town where two rival sets of gangsters are competing to gain supremacy of the town’s gambling dens and protection rackets. In one of the storylines, Hattori (Tadanobu Asano) is a masterless samurai, a ronin, who decides to take on work as a bodyguard for the Ginzo gang in order to earn money for medicine for his ailing wife. The second storyline deals with the Naruto children on a quest for vengeance ten years after their whole family household had been wiped out by unknown gangsters. Only Zatoichi’s backstory is left somewhat vague – perhaps since it is felt that audiences will be familiar with his history through his adventures recounted elsewhere – a loner, a blind man with heightened senses and a lethal way with a sword-cane, who fends off attacks from unknown assailants and fights injustice where he finds it.
There’s little that is new about the film’s plot, which is an amalgam of many other samurai, gangster and swordplay films and their associated debt to spaghetti western stand-offs and confrontations. The rival gangs fighting it out in a town with a wild-card ronin bodyguard recalls Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, a fight scene in a downpour recalls Seven Samurai, even the clumsy incompetence of some of the swordplay recalls both the villagers of Seven Samurai and the playful innocence of Sanjuro. But it’s not just Kurosawa who is referenced. Kitano’s mentor Kinji Fukasaku and even the director’s own yakuza films are alluded to in the big boss-organised street-mob violence, which takes on Lone Wolf & Cub-like levels of single stroke severing of body parts and arterial fountaining of blood. Even the character of Zatoichi is just an extension of the persona Kitano has developed in his earlier films.
Moving at a fairly leisurely pace with the rather unoriginal backstories being barely sketched-in, the plot nevertheless successfully sets-up its situation and brings these characters together by the middle of the film. The film then slips for a while into some light slapstick and comic-relief routines, generally played-out by Gadarukanaru Taka’s character Shinkiji, which are funny and a change of pace, but it does leave the film feeling a bit slack in the middle, losing the tone, purpose and direction that it has built-up thus far.
There are however some nice ‘Beat’ Takahashi touches in the film. Some of the fight scenes are quite inventive and the camera is a lot more dynamic than we would normally be accustomed to in a Kitano film, using lightning swipes to follow the sweeping cuts of the sword with balletic twists and twirls around the fighters. The film’s notorious drum and tap-dance sequences (not as incongruous as some reviewers have considered) and the humour are well-integrated giving the audience a chance to step back for a moment from the violent confrontations and giving Kitano a bit of a challenge that he more than rises to. Tadanobu Asano (Ichi The Killer, Last Life In The Universe) confirms his growing reputation with a strong, but nicely understated performance. Most crucially, Kitano brings his charismatic presence to the film. By simply dying his hair blond (even though Zatoichi has never been a blond character) and adopting the hunched posture of a blind man, he becomes a convincing Zatoichi and swordsman, the viewer never questioning for a second his extraordinary skills and abilities. None of this however is really enough to lift the film up into being either special or original. I found it lacking pace, depth of characterisation and complexity of plot – but it’s an entertaining entry into the diverse filmography of a great actor and director.
A muted colour scheme is used intentionally by the director and it looks fine in the Artificial Eye Region 2 release. Blacks are solid, the image is clear and free from marks or dustspots and there’s a nice clarity of tone throughout. Grain is evident in certain scenes, causing macro-blocking compression artefacts to show as a slight flicker in backgrounds. The picture isn’t particularly sharp, looking generally soft and lacking detail in wider shots, but overall it’s a good transfer of the film.
There is the choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 or Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes. The 5.1 mix is front and centre based, but makes good use of surrounds when the occasion demands. There’s a little bit of hiss and background noise, but the soundtrack is mainly strong, clear and extremely effective.
English subtitles are provided for the feature and are optional. Extra features are in Japanese, so also include subtitles.
Making Of (39:56)
The Making Of covers the film from the press conference announcing the making of the film through shooting many of the scenes to its premiere at Venice. The Japanese voiceover narration appears to have been dropped but it is present in the narrative English subtitles. It’s an entertaining feature, of reasonable length and includes a brief interview with Kitano.
Theatrical Trailer (01:32)
A powerful little trailer very effectively presents the film.
A brief biography and filmography of Takeshi Kitano as director and actor.
A brief look at Asano’s career with selected filmography.
Stills galleries are divided into three sections: Production Stills (23), Posters (4) and Behind The Scenes (7) stills.
Zatoichi has been quite a successful film for Kitano and critical response to it, particularly with a Silver Lion award at Venice last year, has also been good, but it’s a minor film in Takeshi Kitano’s filmography – a stylish entertainment filmed with customary style and flourish, but having little of substance or originality. The UK Region 2 DVD release is well presented with entertaining and informative extra features.