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With a back catalogue of some twenty six films spanning from 1962 to 1988, the legend of the wanderer, Zatoichi, is well established in Japanese samurai movie-making. The samurai-martial arts genre has itself a rich pedigree and conventions of narrative as confirmed and as integral as that of the occidental western. Reinvigorating the character of Zatoichi for the contemporary audience whilst respecting his origins would require an inventive yet observant treatment—enter the creative, eclectic and iconic ‘Beat’ Takeshi.

Zatoichi
Film
Blind swordsman, masseur and a loner, nomadic Zatoichi’s travels bring him to a small rural town where the innocent worker is victim of the exploitations of Yakuza-style gangs. The gangs are themselves feuding for racketeering and extortion control. Always benevolent in the first, Zatoichi aids and so then befriends a vegetable-seller, O-Ume (Michiyo Ookusu), who herself is being exploited. It is through O-Ume that Zatoichi learns of both the town’s troubles and her simple-minded gambler relation Shinkichi (Gadarukanaru Taka).

Whilst Zatoichi’s scenes of exposition play out, two other storylines are introduced. Two geishas are also new to town, on a mission of revenge for the murder of their family by one of the gangs ten years previously. Gennosuke Hattori (Tadanobu Asano) has also arrived with his lowly wife O-Shino (Yui Natsukawa). Hattori is a highly skilled Ronin, a master-less samurai, baited by losing a position of honour in the past but driven by the practical need to provide money to buy medicine for O-Shino. As a result he takes employment as a gang-chief’s bodyguard. Zatoichi is as adept at gambling as he is slaying and soon begins to mind Shinkichi at the dice table—in gambling dens controlled by the gangs. As the each plotline begins to converge around Zatoichi the traditional confrontations of brutal bloodshed inevitably loom and gather pace.

Zatoichi
Kitano directs himself as Zatoichi and turns in an excellent performance. He invests his interpretation of the blind blades-man with relatable idiosyncrasies, warmth of humour and just (but, admittedly, only just) enough of a sense of human fallibility to keep him from seeming too mythically remote from everyone around him. Kitano, as ever, excels in the violent fight scenes, but in this outing eschews excessive weapon-play for devastating one-strike kills. As a result, assailants are dispatched with brutal precision by a single slash, meaning fights are over as quickly as they begin, which only serves to reinforce Zatoichi’s skills. Bloodletting still ensues though, enhanced mostly by effective CGI enhanced moves as victims wail themselves to the ground.

The narrative always sets the scenes of violence and although brutal they never seem out of place in Zatoichi’s world. Kitano seems to revel in counter-balancing these times with moments of light, comedic relief with Gadarukanaru Taka’s clown, Shinkichi. His endeavours provide the Japanese slapstick which at first comes as an elegant surprise but soon settles into and maintains the film’s overall feel and appeal.

Kitano gets solid support from the rest of the cast, especially Daigoro Tachibana and Yuuko Daike (the geishas), who all come into play in the film’s concluding scenes. Kitano ingeniously embraces the conventional resolution of the samurai-drama whilst boldly staging an invigorating tap-dancing routine. It is a perfect example of how Kitano’s inventiveness exceeds the film’s expected bounds, at first with apparent incongruity, but once in place helps create a thoughtful piece of seasoned entertainment.

Zatoichi
Video
This 1.85:1 transfer is solid on the whole and the quality of picture is consistent throughout (mostly). Interior scenes hold together and the subtly stylised settings are portrayed well. Exterior scenes more readily emphasise the overall softened and subdued colour scenes. Grains are apparent at odd moments, but not disruptively so.

Sound/Audio
This transfer offers Dolby Digital 2.0 or 5.1 tracks, with the latter best coming into play when surround sounds are called upon. On the whole one can’t complain, with silence just about maintained in the right dramatic places followed by lightning quick scythes of sound slashing out the next, so in that sense the soundtrack supports the atmosphere that the film seeks to create. The musical denouement similarly brings one and all together.

Extras
Well, there’s not much to go on really. A making of documentary, a theatrical trailer, filmographies for both Takeshi Kitano (and his alter ego ‘Beat’ Takeshi) and Tabaobu Asano and a stills gallery are all that is on offer here. Since the film is in itself a rounded and creative evolution of a familiar story and known character perhaps little further exposition is really necessary. To the majority of region two viewers, however, this could go either way, either piquing enough interest to find out more, or by letting Zatoichi stand alone on the disc does adding to the mystique of his character, to the legend of his skills, and to his appeal as a cinematic persona to be revisited, hopefully, in a sequel. Nevertheless, the inclusion of at least some background history about the character’s iconic past would serve this purpose equally well without possibly alienating the uninitiated western reviewer.

Zatoichi
The making of documentary is subdued in tone at first, at times as reverential towards Kitano as star and director as he has been to the progenitors of the character. Similar to the film, the documentary then shifts towards humour and success as it in turn focuses on the comic characters (Taka) and the eventual international acclaim the film received on its release. Kitano won the Silver Lion for Best Director at the 60th Venice Film Festival.

Kitano provides some insight into how he set about updating the Zatoichi legend for contemporary audiences while remaining true to the character’s origins. His attention to both evolution within the canon and respect for his audience is perhaps best (though by no means wholly) signified by his decision to play Zatoichi as a bleached blond. It is a polar opposite to the black-haired star Shintarô Katsu who played the eponymous hero in the gamut of films over the previous decades. Mindful of the Japanese audience’s reaction Kitano asserts that he deliberately went public with his bleached hair-do several months before release so that people would have a notion of what to expect.

The theatrical trailer is standard fare which presents the film adequately enough, playing up the skilled samurai motif most effectively. (Again, it is another example of a trailer with dialogue that does not).

The filmographies are brief, providing a short biog for Kitano as director and actor respectively. The selection of production and behind-the-scenes stills really show nothing new outside of the making of doc, while the poster stills are diverting.

Zatoichi
Overall
As Kitano pays homage to, evolves and subverts the character of Zatoichi he has deftly spliced together notable elements of slapstick comedy, ensemble musical, martial arts, historical epic and honourable allegorical conventions into one refined whole. As a result Zatoichi stands alone as a real treat of mature entertainment. It is a credit to Kitano’s artistic vision that this film also really works as an ingenious re-invention of, and addition to, the Zatoichi canon and not just a melting pot of scattered genre-crossing scenes. Kitano has worked hard to take reverential bows to filmmakers who have influenced him (such as Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu) whilst employing modern trends of mise-en-scène, which helps elevate the film above more standard slash-stab sword-playing. The measured pacing of the film keeps the comedy, struggle, gore and swordplay in check whilst the denouement builds to an energetic and, ultimately, jubilant conclusion.

Not Kitano’s most progressive or radical piece of film-making, but considering the conventions from which the film was born this is still a remarkably creative and enjoyable film. This is a worthy purchase that can become more absorbing as you notch up the repeat viewings.


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