The character of Zatoichi is one of the best loved in Japanís history of television and film ever since the 60ís. After a personal request to make a Zatoichi film, cult director/actor/comedian Takeshi ĎBeatí Kitano took the mantel to fulfil the latest addition to this illustrious franchise.
Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano) is blind, but that doesnít stop him wandering around eighteenth century Japan offering his services as a masseuse. With his blonde cropped hair and closed eyes wandering, tapping the ground with his bright red cane, Zatoichi belies his true skills; he is a master swordsman even without the ability to see.
Zatoichi arrives in a new town one day and although the town gives an air of peace and wellbeing, things are rather sinister under the surface as the local gang, the Ginzo clan, extortionate money from the poor villagers.
The Ginzo gang recently hired a ronin, a master-less samurai, named Hattori (Tadanobu Asano) who eliminated all of their enemies, and now they bleed the poor merchants of the village dry without having to worry about any turf issues. Zatoichi helps out an old woman and as a reward she lets him stay at her place where he befriends her nephew Shinkichi (Gadarukanaru Taka). Shinkichi and Zatoichi start hanging out at the local gambling den where the blind masseur uses his heightened sense of hearing to beat the odds.
Also two other recent arrivals into the town came at the same time as Zatoichi in the shapely form of two Geishas sisters. These two sisters are killing off members of the Ginzo gang in an act of revenge for the slaughter of their family many years earlier.
Soon the strange group consisting of the two sisters, Zatoichi, Shinkichi and his aunt are hanging while various people try to find them including the leader of the Ginzo gang, Boss Ginzo (Ittoku Kishibe). Boss Ginzo is counting on his hired samurai, Hattori, to eliminate Zatoichi. Unfortunately things are further complicated when it transpires that the only reason Hattori is hiring himself out as an assassin is to pay for a cure for his dying wife and his soul is not really in the job.
Zatoichi is also directed by Kitano and is superb in not only a cinematic manner but also as a work of art. Scenes of farmers toiling the land or building a house to the beat of composer Keiichi Suzukiís score and the fusion of modern and classic imagery really stand out. The film has some very humorous scenes at times and they are provided mostly by Shinkichi.
Performances are outstanding with the ever dependable Kitano being at the top of his game. With every tick and twitch of his face he really brings the essence of Zatoichi to life, after all this is a character that has been in over sixty films since the 60ís and is already hugely popular in Japan. Kitano brings a real humanity to the character regardless of the circumstances, whether he is cutting a swath through the Ginzo gang or nonchalantly tossing newly cut logs over his shoulder into a perfectly arranged pile, he is right on the money.
The film is violent and the swordfights have got some CGI embellishments which allow for severed limbs and blood spurting like geysers. The frenetic blood-soaked action sequences are filmed in such a way that it appears as an art house movie and less like a samurai flick at times, but even throughout the fluidity and mayhem of the clashes the film maintains a very strong sense of humanity and honour.
Even with the paradox of the main character having sharper perceptions without sight, confused Geishas, concealed histories, chivalrous gestures and a code of honour this rates as one of the most entertaining and highly recommended Japanese films of the year. Plus it ends on a bizarre, yet superb, musical number Ė what more could you ask for?
BACK TO THE REVIEWS