Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003)

"Beat" Takeshi Kitano updates the classic Japanese tale of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman/masseur, with his trademark exuberance, deadpan humor, and sporadic, outlandish violence. The plot is overly complicated, but is set up to allow Zatoichi to remain in the background and not wear out his welcome; the Naruto sisters witness their whole family killed by clansmen, and task Zatoichi with taking down them and their rival clan. His chief rival is a ronin, hired as a bodyguard for one of the clan leaders to support his dying wife, and whose skills nearly match Zatoichi's (in the light, that is). The clan politics are interesting, but become tedious; without the traditional Japanese environment, there is little here that significantly deviates from his Yakuza sagas. The two winning elements here are the fight scenes, with use bright, CGI-enhanced blood spurts and lively samurai work to give samurai fans nice sweaty action boners, and, as always, the half-paralyzed superhero of Takeshi himself.

Aside from his understanding of complex crime sagas reminiscent of this one, the match of Kitano with this material is ideal for another reason: his minimalist acting style is so perfect for this environment, it is a wonder why he never felt inclined to tackle the samurai genre before. His face, devoid of movement, as usual, keeps him an enigma, and allows his character to be the catalyst for much of what goes on around him. He massages, gambles, and kills with equal indifference, only consistently taking pleasure at the stupidity of the villains who underestimate him. He shuffles his feet like a pathetic old man, and seems to invite evildoers to test their merit against him. I'm sure his stardom allows this aspect to play much better in Japan, but for an American who appreciates his work, his cheeky, interesting interpretation of Zatoichi definitely made the project worthwhile. Mention must also be made to Gadarukanuru Taka, who, as Zatoichi's goofy companion, Shinkichi, manages to make one forget about all the grotesque old comic foils of these samurai picures, and has several hilarious scenes interspersed with the plot that do much to sustain one's attention span. One scene, where he miserably tries to relay Zatoichi's teachings on three bandits, recalls Beat's brilliant beachside Russian roulette scene in Sonatine.

Recommended to fans of samurai films, color-rich Japanese cinema, or Takeshi Kitano. This is not the rip-roaring samurai adventure one might expect, but definitely contains enough nuance and originality to be a interesting, fun Zatoichi film.

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