The Blind Samurai
Zatoichi is a blind masseur who has a nifty little sideline as a deadly samurai. Well, actually he is a ronin, which means a samurai without a master. Despite his visual impairment, Zatoichi can dispatch even the most cunning foe with his swordsmanship (when he is not busy doing massages of course).
Yes, this premise is as weird as it sounds, but the character of Zatoichi has actually appeared in nearly thirty films (more than James Bond!) and a TV series of about a hundred episodes. The franchise started in Japan in the sixties and has been hugely popular there.
The latest installment is more a "reimagining" than just another sequel. It is written by, directed by and stars Takeshi Kitano, also known as Beat Takeshi. Kitano is a huge icon in his native Japan, where apart from making films he also works on TV as a comedian and game show host. Outside of Japan, he is best known as the acclaimed auteur and star of films like Hana-Bi, Brother and Dolls.
Kitano has admitted to not knowing much about the original Zatoichi series and deliberately taking it in a new direction. He said in an interview that “I’m going to keep the name of the movie and the name of the character and he will be a blind masseur and a sword-master man, that is as much as I would be faithful to the original.”
In this latest film, Zatoichi helps two young geisha sisters to exact revenge on the warlord who had their family murdered years before. It transpires that one of the “sisters” is actually a young man in drag. Cross-dressing is nothing new in Japanese films, but in Zatoichi it just seems totally incongruous. Why does it feel like the character was tacked on to the film? Because that is exactly what happened. The executive producer asked Kitano to write a part in the film for a young transvestite actor whose work she liked. So that is what he did (and it shows).
Takeshi uses other techniques to give the film a modern edge. He plays Zatoichi with bleach-blonde hair, which looks very funky, but hardly seems authentic considering the film is set in a feudal Japan of centuries ago. He also gives the fight sequences the look of a computer game by using copious amounts of orangey computer-generated blood, rather than the more realistic-looking synthetic blood usually used in films.
The film has a few great moments. There is a stunning scene in which farm labourers are working in a field and the sounds of their implements combine to create a musical melody. It is beautifully done and recalls the musical sequences in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, but it just seems at odds with the rest of the film. It is a typical example the film’s eclectic, “throw in a bit of everything” style, which presumably was meant to put a post-modern spin on the Zatoichi series. Unfortunately, this mish-mash of elements just does not seem to gel.
If you are looking for a martial arts homage which is ultra-cool and ultra-violent, but with a 21st century twist to it, you would be better off checking out Quentin Tarantino’s rip-roaring Kill Bill instead. It wipes the blood-soaked floor with the new Zatoichi.
(Released by Miramax and rated "R" for strong stylized bloody violence.)