Release: 23 Jul. 04
|The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi
BY: DAVID PERRY
Some have compared Japan’s Zatoichi to the United States’
Zorro, even if most of the populace hasn’t seen the iconic figure’s films,
the lasting images remain chiseled into the cultural consciousness. But
outside of the comparison of preexisting knowledge, the connection is rather
thin. While Zorro was a one-note character with fine conventions to latch
onto, his figure was never recreated into anything artistically viable.
Zatoichi, which could be just as uninspiring in the character’s original
form, is different largely because that justification for the icon status
can be seen in a reintroduction of the character to Japan with The Blind
Swordsman: Zatoichi. Since the film is directed by cult favorite Takeshi
Kitano, America is thankfully allowed to share in this inauguration.
As usual, Kitano plays the title character, a blind masseur who stumbles
into small towns and makes things right for the good people. He’s a one-man
Seven Samurai, and his sword is just as deadly as all their forces combined.
Though not quite believable, the film has an intentional camp quality that
has made many of the filmmaker’s works especially refreshing amid Asian
action’s more serious action artists like John Woo. Filled with special
effect bloodbaths and deep sword swipes, this Zatoichi is meant to be taken
as a pulp figure, the type of character Quentin Tarantino likely had in mind
when crafting his Kill Bill films. In a nice touch, the film’s climactic
battle between Zatoichi (Kitano credited, as always, “Beat” Takeshi) and
gang hitman/bodyguard Hattori (Asano) occurs on a beach, where the
Bride-Bill fight was supposed to occur.
What’s most amazing is that The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi is this much fun
without turning the film into farce. Even when the music takes on the beat
of workers in a field hoeing the ground, its absurdity wavers nearer to
genius than idiocy. The same can be said of the film’s wonderful finale, in
which Kitano again clefts from Seven Samurai (perhaps he’s becoming the
Japanese Tarantino). In this sequence, as bodies jump and clog in a
beautifully rhythmic motion, the film’s fight choreography is complemented
by its dance choreography. “I wish I could see that,” the blind killer once says
about the simple treats in life like seeing a friend carrying a basket of
vegetables. I wish he could see this dance in his honor, too: it’s no less
simple, but just as amazingly satisfying.