Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi pays homage to the original character developed into various films and TV shows. In this offering (based on the novel by Kan Shimozawa) he orchestrates a fairy tale-esque ode to all things samurai and all things action.
The lead character, as with the original, is a blind masseuse and a covertly craftily skilled swordsman. Directing and playing the lead character, Kitano forges a straightforward tale of loyalty and revenge while keeping the pace fun and lively… with the odd spurt of blood.
The director takes charge of playing The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi and Takeshi “Beat” Kitano has a spread of actors bringing his sidekicks and his enemies to life.
The first of the latter is Tadanobu Asano, who we’ve seen in Thor and of course Ichi The Killer, plays Hattori Genosuke a wandering sword for hire while Yui Natsakawa plays his ailing wife. The three bosses are played by Saburo Ishikura as Ogi, Ittoku Kishibe as Ginzo and Kohji Miura as Lord Sakai.
Along with Zatoichi Michiyo Ohkusu and Gadarukanaru Taka play Aunt Oume and Shinkichi respectively. And with the two Geishas (Daigoro Tachibana and Yuko Daike) the ramshackle squad are assembled.
Zatoichi follows a straightforward tale where our lead character is a hero, coming to the aid of villagers who are struggling in their plight against a ruthless Yakuza gang who extort, bully and kill for their dastardly ends. He befriends a local farmer and her gambler nephew (Shinkichi who provides the laugh-out-loud moments) while coming to the assistance of two geisha siblings seeking revenge for their family’s slaughter. Conversely a Ronin with a troubled past aids his sick wife while taking odd jobs where he can. It’s these odd jobs that include dispatching folk via his sword skills that will eventually lead him to Zatoichi.
There is no delay establishing The Blind Swordsman’s character! A tame in tone but chaotic in action intro sees Ichi (as he’s called) seated as a gang use a child to steal the blind man’s ‘stick’. We know this won’t end well. It doesn’t. Beat’s hunched, twitchy manifestation of an aged fogey serves as a great acting credit but also in misdirection that this is a weak old man. Two assailants are dispatched, while the others flee. This is how Zatoichi rolls.
Other introductions give us a brief glimpse of character backgrounds and their convergence on the village; the geisha’s doing a Basic Instinct manoeuvre by taking out their customers mid-performance, the Ronin slicing through folk he’s been paid to slice, Oume being harassed by some hoodlums – they’re not all-out fight scenes but small slices of violence and story-setting that are well-crafted and maintain story momentum.
The same principle applies to Ichi meeting Hattori. A sense of violent eruption is palpable but muted while we get a glimpse of what is to come.
A noteworthy sequence is when Ichi rescues the geishas in a nighttime sword-off that is smart as with the other sequences described above and below. The conclusive showdown is calm and calculated and not overdone. This shows the director’s delicate hand, which is appreciated when taking an overview of this classic.
However it is when the story delves deeper into the darkness of Ichi’s character that the film flourishes and Kitano’s directorial flair fully shines through. The standout piece is a flashback to an unknown setting where Ichi waits in the pouring rain, completely surrounded by adversaries. What ensues is a well-choreographed sequence utilising the character’s unorthodox sword grips and draws while showcasing his entire skill set.
Shot entirely in slow motion, the camera pans around Ichi as we wait – as he does – for who will make the first move. The first brave, but foolish soul attacks. We see slices, stabs and a systematic shut down with neat touches such as Ichi unable to grip his sword due to the rain, using his scabbard as a weapon and scraping down a bamboo pole and through it’s owner in a slick fashion.
It’s testament to Kitano’s ability to convey such contrasting genres and moods in not just one movie but in one scene.
At the end, the director chooses to focus on the last attacker instead of Ichi, showing us his fear and building a sense of foreboding as we’ve all seen what he’s capable off. And here that includes absolutely no mercy. Though some part of us hopes he’ll spare him, watching Ichi from behind with his expertly portrayed ‘old man step’ looks like a horror villain as the camera pans-out and rises, showing eight strewn bloodied and motionless figures as Ichi stands amongst them. An absolute masterstroke.
As almost a counter-balance, the large comedy aspects (mainly drafted in from the gambling nephew) warrant mention. Shinkichi’s attempt to ape Ichi’s gambling luck will have you in stitches as will his attempt to train some local ragamuffins in the art of the samurai.
These are all a welcome amalgam of elements that offer comic relief and attempt to temper the violence along with the CGI blood that Kitano opted for.
The Blind Swordsman is a movie for any martial-arts fan, anyone interested in anything Kitano has done previously or simply wants to see samurai’s, ronin and thugs go at it.
There’s a lot to witness but this warrants welcome revisits to fully appreciate how cunning the director is in his moves and in actuality as you see Zatoichi with all his quirks, muted speech, hobbling about and devastating samurai skills.
An instant classic that puts a modern spin on the Zatoichi character melding comedy, action and downright brutality into a coherent fairytale of a story. The fights, the jokes, the dance routine outtro and of course the rain-soaked showdown make this a must for the connoisseurs collection. Put simply, this is a curiously zen-paced-yet-utterly-watchable Japanese period offering which exudes sheer class! A must see, a must own!
- The director opted for CGI blood to “soften the shock to the audience”. It’s reported Kitano said the blood should “look like flowers blossoming across the screen.”