The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Takeshi Kitano
viewed: 09/07/08

This was the film that I had tried to see last week, an updating of the popular Zatoichi, the blind swordsmand character, a modern take on the samurai film by notable writer/director/actor Takeshi Kitano.  Actually, last week due to a mistake on the Netflix shipping side, I ended up seeing Samaritan Zatoichi (1968), the 19th in a long series of Zatoichi films starring the original Shintarô Katsu, who made the character so well-known.  This accident was fortuitous since I hadn’t seen any of these films before and wasn’t familiar with the character, really only queueing this film for the Takeshi Kitano aspect.

Regarding Takeshi Kitano, it had been some time since I’d seen one of his films.  The last one that I had seen was his odd, somewhat lacking Brother (2000).  Kitano is an interesting character, an actor/comedian in Japan who among many things, was the host of Takeshi’s Castle, which is known more broadly in America in its mashed up version called Most Extreme Elimination Challenge.  His cinematic acting dates back to the 1980’s.  Known again in the West perhaps most notably from his role of Sgt. Gengo Hara in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) by Nagisa Oshima and co-starring a very blond David Bowie.

But it was his turn at writing and directing that brought him so consumately in my world, namely with his earliest directorial films, Violent Cop (1989), Boiling Point (1990), and his best film, Sonatine (1993), dark, violent, brooding, yet humanistic films, often about yakuza and ending with a brutal fatalism.  Kitano made some fine films.  He made some less fine films, too.

So, with his Zatoichi, it’s kind of curious.  Why re-make this character?  What is this film trying to do?

From this little bit of DVD extras and web research that I’ve done, it seems that Kitano was trying to make a more commercial film, and it seems that it was more commercially successful.  He moved away from his long takes and slow pacing to more camera movement and quicker cutting.  But when asked how his Zatoichi was going to differ from Katsu’s, he pointed out that he had dyed his hair blond, so Zatoichi was going to be blond.  This joking reference to a superficial change belies perhaps other changes that he also made to the character and to the samurai genre.

Most notably, the film has a penchant for music, featuring rhythmic hammering, dance, and farming sequences and then ending in a rather odd dance number, a mixture of Noh and tap, that apparently had its basis in other Japanese filmic or theater traditions.  He also uses a notably artificial-looking CGI blood-letting in the swordfight sequences.  For me, this was an anomolous distraction.  Geysers of blood are usually squirting in more traditional FX in samurai films.

The thing about Kitano is that these weirdnesses are not accidental and I guess it doesn’t matter so much whether they work for me or you or whomever.  He’s trying to do something here, but it’s kinda chaotic.  The story follows Zatoichi and a typically a-typical band of fellow outsiders against  the bad guys clans of samurai criminals, including a cross-dressing vengeance-seeking geisha and a comedy-relief gambler.  Comedy, as I noted in Samaritan Zatoichi, seems to be an aspect of this character against the traditions of the samurai genre.

Bottom line: I didn’t really like it.  It’s a pastiche.  Not that it’s horrible.  I just think it’s a bit of an odd, though moderately decent mess.

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