From the Tribeca Film Festival: Zatoichi
Takeshi Kitano resurrecting the long running, now dead Japanese movie series about a blind masseuse swordfighter could be roughly transposed to Hollywood if Sean Connery had made 20 Bond films and then died,
prompting a good friend of his to eventually convince Woody Allen to write, direct, and star in a continuation of the series several decades later. Okay, maybe that is the worst analogy ever; Kitano at least is known for his violent yakuza films and a subtler brand of deadpan comedy, and most Zatoichi films really are just yakuza movies with swords instead of guns. Appeased by a friend of the series’ original star to bring back the legend, it looks like Kitano has briefly turned mainstream. Strangely enough, the Kitano brand smoothly transfers to commercial moviemaking with artistry largely intact and rousing entertainment values at an unusual high. The film cuts surprisingly deep; like most Kitano films but even more so whilst pursuing the vein of a venerated series, Zatoichi
plays by the all the rules of genre while still having a terrifically playful sense of fun.
Perhaps the most relaxing facet of the film is that Kitano treats his narrative like just another nonchalant entry in the series as if it had never died off. Thus even considering
the title of the movie, and Kitano’s face and name plastered all over the film as far as the eye can see (writer, director, editor, star), the ex-yakuza wandering masseuse really is not the focus of the movie. Instead, just like a catalyst lead in a Western, the bleached blonde slowly ambling killer wanders into a town and ends up in the center of inter-gang warfare and various personal vendettas that take the focus of the story. Todanobu Asano shows up for example in the role of a ronin with the burden of a consumptive wife and he takes up any task, however immoral, to bring in their livelihood. His path, and those of several others in the film, including a losing gambler impressed by Zatoichi’s ability to hear the roll of the dice and a duo of assassin geishas, eventually will cross that of Zatoichi. Being blind affords him other high sensitivities, and just like the old series Kitano’s masseuse dispenses justice with an eerie nose for wrong doers and an impossibly quick sword that invariably helps solve the problems of the wrongly done.
Kitano’s experimentation inside this framework comes from his amusing play with the idea of Zatoichi’s blindness. The film places a distinct emphasis on sound and vision. Kitano’s habitually staccato cutting for his trademark “explosions” of violence for the first time has a logical explanation in one of his movies. There is much more blood and swordplay and action in Zatoichi
than any of his previous films, but the action is cut and chopped up, deemphasizing continuity and skill of swordmanship and hammering home Zatoichi’s sightless world of snap-reaction to sudden changes in sound and movement.
Though Zatoichi isn’t really at the center of the film, his sightlessness is. Visual gags just keep rolling throughout, among them unintentionally fake looking CGI blood, and Kitano’s anachronistic hair color. The sound effects of the film are startling and equally emphasized; every time a sword is drawn the speakers seem to snap at the audience, and the film builds a very quirky audio world that
emphases both these outbursts of violent noise and the more musical rhythms of daily life. These latter sounds make up the backbone of Zatoichi
’s mainstream sense of fun where rain drops, dices rolls, the clack of betting chips, and peasants working in the fields all make their own sort of music. The film’s soundtrack becomes a unique form of diegetic hip-hop, which fits very naturally not only with Kitano’s half-joking tone of the work but also the concept of a blind protagonist. Less obvious than the funky use of sound are the conventional flashbacks combined with Kitano’s slightly broken up editing habits. Since Zatoichi
focuses more on the many secondary characters that surround the blind man than the blind man himself Kitano employs several flashbacks to flesh out each character’s back-story and to provide exposition for their current motivations. That, like the exuberant pleasure of the film’s natural hip-hop, is the traditional explanation for the flashbacks. The
more artistic interpretation is that Kitano is collapsing visual space in a way that humanizes the nearly anonymous and wordless Zatoichi. Having the characters muse on the way their past intermingles with and determines their current courses of life pumps Zatoichi
full of compassion not found in its just but anonymous hero.
While Zatoichi’s flashback is an amusingly apsychological bloodbath during a rainstorm, the geishas and wandering ronin fade in and out of reality and their vision criss-crosses the past and the present, giving heart to the film by lending their visual memories to Zatoichi’s silent cipher. The ronin’s distant past explores the conflict between an honorable samurai heritage and the financial worries of masterless ronin. The geishas, who ensair men with their sexual charms, dance before them and then strangle them to death, tell of a family massacre and their long and sacrificial path to retribution. Their stories are plain and effective and help ease the pain that this Zatoichi, purposely standing apart from the original actor’s warmth and friendliness, is basically a hollow superhero-like fighting machine despite Kitano’s addition of platinum blond hair and a hunched shuffle that makes him seem practically elderly. The other characters’ back-stories are far more emphatic and painted in broad strokes of honor and troubled times, and the way Kitano blurs the line between simple conventions and exploring the principal hook of the original series in the idea of a blind swordsman helps make Zatoichi
something more than just another violent samurai movie. Sprinkled as much with humor as it is with blood, the film has a little bit for everyone, and if that waters down Kitano’s art than it is a successful trade for a darn of a good time.