Release: September 2nd 2003
Running time: 116 minutes
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese
Writer and director: Takeshi Kitano
Cast: Takeshi Kitano, mind Tadanobu Asano, Yuuko Daike, Daigoro Tachibana, Michiyo Okusu, Guadalcanal Taka
A DVD of Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi was handed over to me for the first time by a flat-mate many years ago. He was an avid fan of the multi-talented oddball-genius Kitano, so amongst the films he deemed must-watch were Sonatine (1993), Brother (2000) and Battle Royale (2000). At the time I was more interested in Japanese anime than film, but I was looking forward to making my way through the sizable pile of discs nevertheless. I did however have some reservations about Zatoichi prior to watching.
I wasn’t familiar with the long running series which gave birth to Takeshi Kitano’s reboot, but I had faint memories from my childhood of seeing another title called Blind Fury (1989) starring Rutger Hauer which was loosely based on the same concept. As a kid, I had a hard time accepting the idea that a blind swordsman would be a formidable warrior capable of beating groups of attackers back so effortlessly. Elevating a character with a physical disability to become some kind of a cartoonish hero seemed like a misguided attempt at political correctness so I rejected it.
I sat down to watch Zatoichi with my arms across my chest (at least, they were like that in my mind), but it took the film no more than a few minutes to win me over. There are things to be listed as to why to watch it, but the first thing that really surprised me about Zatoichi was an overall quality I hadn’t been familiar with. I tended to think that films made outside Hollywood were bound to have a “low-profile” look and feel and this was the first film that shook me in that belief.
The fight choreography combined with a visual style and cool special effects (when body parts are severed) all looked utterly convincing. This was of course the period when Korean director Park Chan-wook was in the midst of making his “Vengeance Trilogy” and Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) were also hitting the screens. All aspects of East Asian cinema were becoming incredibly competitive on a global market and Zatoichi was a prime example of this trend.
Nevertheless it’s Takeshi Kitano’s storytelling style and sense of humour that puts the crown on the beautiful new dressing. The traditional story of the lone warrior saving a small village terrorised by criminal gangs is turned into more of a collective effort where each character is as brilliant as the other. The blind swordsman Zatoichi (played by Takeshi Kitano) takes shelter in the home of a local farmer (Michiyo Okusu) and her somewhat dim-witted and always-gambling nephew (Guadalcanal Taka). Two geisha soon join them as their search for revenge sets an identical goal to Zatoichi’s who decides to fight back against the Yakuza.
The two geisha are actually siblings (Yuuko Daike and Daigoro Tachibana) trying to find the man who killed their parents and one of them turns out to be a man. Kitano’s candid portrayal of a transgender person should please a progressive-minded audience, which makes his recent comments comparing gay marriage to bestiality all the more puzzling. Although, to be fair, Kitano’s famous tongue-in-cheek style makes it very difficult to tell whether he was joking or not.
Every once in a while we realise that a scene synchronises with the soundtrack; noises of farmers working the field for instance become rhythmical, matching the music that plays during the sequence. This is absolutely mesmerising whenever it happens, cinema at its most sublime.
Kitano’s performance is a pleasure to watch and is one of the most convincing I’ve seen by an actor playing a blind character. The fact that this blind person is also a swordsman who can cut off limbs with extreme precision makes the performance even more impressive. His nemesis is the body guard of the local Yakuza boss played by Tadanobu Asano whom we’ve seen as the crazed Itchi in Takashi Miike’s Itchi the Killer (2001). Although he’s made sympathetic, his backstory of a sick wife in need of medical help isn’t the strongest feature of the film. The story of the two geisha however is elaborate and very touching, crystallised in a beautiful scene where young and old are juxtaposed to show sister’s love for brother and the hardship that shaped them over the years.
Kitano’s sometimes surreal sense of humour is injected into his character as well as other aspects of the film, giving Zatiochi that certain “Kitano flavour”. I hold this film in high regards not only because it truly is a memorable piece of cinema, but also because this is the film that opened my eyes to a new kind of potential in Japanese cinema that pulled me further into its domain.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.