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Miramax Films

Official Site

Director: Takeshi Kitano

Producers: Masayuki Mori, Tsunehisa Saito

Written by: Takeshi Kitano; from a story by Kan Shimozawa

Cast: Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano, Michiyo Ogusu, Yui Natsukawa, Guadalcanal Taka, Daigoro Tachibana, Yuko Daike, Ittoku Kishibe, Saburo Ishikura, Akira Emoto


I learned a harsh lesson after viewing Takeshi “Beat” Kitano’s most recent effort, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi: Limitless deep crimson jets of arterial spray cannot alone comprise a satisfying film-going experience. Beneath its showy veneer of exaggerated, manga-esque violence and inexplicable flourishes of offbeat humor, Zatoichi is a confusing, often jarring film, as blind to its own faults as its title character is to all things visible.

Amidst the familiar and oft-romanticized setting of feudal Japan, made dear to Western audiences by Kurosawa, a blind, platinum-haired, wandering masseur ambles stubbornly like a moody child from township to township (or so the audience must assume, as this blind, platinum-haired, wandering masseur is given no backstory), massaging middle-aged women, gambling based on sound alone, and smiling impishly from time to time. One must also understand that this harmless masseur is not so harmless at all, as his maroon-colored cane conceals a hidden blade and his blindness conceals his uncanny swordsman’s prowess, both of which he employs in tandem to hack through legions of samurai fodder who wish to unsteady his simple nomad’s life. It’s true—this blind masseur is none other than the legendary swordsman Zatoichi, of whom a host of older (and much better) Japanese samurai films exist. In this re-imagining of the Zatoichi legend, Beat Kitano (the mysteriously successful Japanese auteur behind such sleep-promoting filmic explorations as Fireworks and Sonatine) directs and stars as Zatoichi, who has just wandered into a nameless and nondescript Japanese village which is, unbeknownst to our anti-hero, being ravaged by a gang war which I mustn’t delve into the specifics of, as it is disinteresting and glossed-over (at best) in the film. Zatoichi’s plot is tangential and derivative, and doesn’t focus upon the blind swordsman at all. Instead, we focus our attention upon Shinkichi (Taka), a pudgy, down on his luck gambler with a curiosity for transvestitism, a pair of murderous geishas out to settle an old grudge (Tachibana and Daike), and a deadly masterless samurai menacingly named Hattori (Asano) who guiltily accepts work as a bodyguard for one of the town’s gangs with the hopes of acquiring enough income to cure his persistently coughing wife’s unnamed illness. Needless to say, these seemingly independent stories weave into another with the intricacy of a quilt stitched together by a zombie grandmother, and the blind masseur Zatoichi must clean up the mess by killing, which, ironically, is a messy business. At the end of the picture you might ask yourself, “Who was that Zatoichi?” And, “Why couldn’t I have learned more about that Zatoichi?” And, “What was with all that dancing at the end?”

I wish I could share some wisdom and some answers with you, but, in truth, I’m just as clueless as the rest.

Zatoichi’s greatest fault is its inability to focus on a specific meaning, story, or fluid narrative presentation for more than five minutes at a time. Themes’ throats are slit with bladed precision; characters are introduced and vanquished with the speed of 1,000 ninja-toed kicks to your befuddled face; flashbacks spontaneously intrude upon the progression of the story like a troop of bandits who garishly interrupt the dinner of a well-to-do samurai family in search of rice, or perhaps fish. Zatoichi also seems preoccupied with delivering not only pulpy samurai drama, but also comedic grains more zany than a ninja on roller skates. Unfortunately, a suitable balance between drama and comedy is never reached, and, consequently, they both seem inappropriate and forced. In one scene, for instance, the world-hardened and tortured Hattori will internally lament the work he must do in order to care for his dying wife, and then—cut—Shinkichi draws cartoonish white eyes upon Zatoichi’s permanently shut eyelids with geisha makeup for a cheap and unnecessary laugh. While it is true that the mixture of drama and comedy is a potent method of ratcheting up tension or allowing the viewer some breathing room in an especially tense picture, Zatoichi creates neither tension nor drama as it gracelessly blunders through a garbled tale about nothing.

Zatoichi is also technically disappointing (and even infuriating) on a number of levels. The majesty of feudal Japan—the rolling hills, the crowded wooden markets, the endless lonely fields of rice—as seen in numerous Kurosawa films, is absent altogether in Kitano’s work. Here, the set design is television quality, the costumes are blandly colored and far too drab considering the often colorful characters, and the geographical vistas of picturesque Japan are absent altogether. The majority of the story occurs in a town devoid of any originality or uniqueness and far too normal when contrasted with the film’s pretense for exaggeration. Plainly, the film looks boring; the cinematography is blasé. And the worst offense committed by Kitano and company, in my opinion, is also a technical choice: CGI is used, very, very poorly as a substitute for practical special effects, meaning that all jets of blood, swords through flesh, and maiming altogether is rendered via computer. And the results are horrid. From the first scene in the film, in which the first action sequence transpires, I became immediately distanced as Zatoichi slices open a rival’s chest to let loose a geyser of faded-yet-glossy sanguine fluid which is far more comical than it is shocking or adrenaline-releasing. The effects look pasted on, like bad bluescreen work. For a film based upon its intense violence and choreographed thrills, the results are simply pathetic. Fans of the pulp samurai genre will be displeased, if not offended altogether.

My negative reaction to Zatoichi might admittedly be directly related to my viewing of another Japanese samurai film only a few days prior, the meticulous and sincere Twilight Samurai. While it is a very different sort of film, much more a strict drama in the vein of the Kurosawa classics (last Kurosawa reference, I promise), it portrays the bygone era of feudal Japan so flawlessly and beautifully that Zatoichi appears amateurish in comparison. Twilight Samurai contains a coherent and intuitive story which comments clearly upon regret, class, and self-worth, whereas Zatoichi, which, ultimately, exists solely to entertain, flittingly darts from unconvincing dramatic beat to mostly flat comic interlude to head-scratching dance sequence (complete with morphing geishas) without cadence or apology. Disgracefully, even its embellished action set pieces fall short of Twilight Samurai’s pair of tension-soaked encounters. While Zatoichi is not without its charms and its merits (samurai swordfights are better than no samurai swordfights), it is not the second coming of the genre, as its poster (and Miramax, most assuredly) would have you believe. Everything contained within the film has been done elsewhere, and far better. Stay home and rent Seven Samurai if you need a shot of samurai drama, or revel in the uncompromising and girlfriend-upsetting violence of Ninja Scroll if overblown action is what you’re after. Please leave the mediocrity of Zatoichi to stumble in unpopulated arthouse auditoriums, where it deserves to falter like a blind man without his cane.

—Nathan Baran

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