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Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman

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Release Date: 
Martial Arts
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Directed by: 
Shintaro Katsu
Shintaro Katsu
Ryuutaro Gan
Yuya Uchida
Bottom Line: 

 Though the character had become the focus of one of the most enduring franchises in Japanese cinema, the ongoing adventures of Zatoichi -- the wandering blind masseur and cane swordsman whose remaining senses have been honed to an almost psychic level of refinement -- appeared to have come to a natural conclusion with the 1973 cinema entry "Zatoichi's Conspiracy" and the TV series that followed a few years later. The character had been played throughout the 25 film series by Shintaro Katsu, a renowned actor and producer who is also well known for his "Hanzo the Razor" series. In 1989, ten years after the television series, Katsu unexpectedly returned to the character that made him famous; this time starring, producing and directing (for only the second time in the series) this 26th film, which sees Zatoichi now in the twilight of his years. The tone is inevitably more reflective. The series had always trod a fine line between arthouse sensibilities and more populist martial arts fare, but here, as the leathery skinned, grizzled veteran loner hobbles from one encounter to another in a soft focus, autumnal Edo period Japan, there is a pronounced elegiac quality to events which gives this film the feel of a final swan song, despite the fact that this indefatigable character has recently been successfully revived by 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano. 
The film revives many sequences from the past films in the Katsu series; it's almost as though the ageing hero's wanderings through the landscape echo his remembrance of past experiences and previous adventures; and in the many poetic monologues and dialogues Zatoichi stops to engage in with various characters he meets upon his way, there is a marked emphasis on memory, symbolised in a mirror given to him by his mother when he was a child, which Zatoichi carries around everywhere with him. Looking into it, though he cannot see his reflection, is a symbol for his remembering his fading past, especially his now idolised mother. 
The film's story unfolds in a slow-paced and quiet fashion, but there are momentary explosions of flashily choreographed swordplay that contrast wonderfully with the arthouse sensibilities embodied in the lengthy bouts of stoic philosophising and the tender, humorous moments that make up the vast majority of the film's content. In these sequences, blood spurts from wounds in gushing red fountains; limbs, heads, ears and noses are sent flying as Zatoichi's supernatural sword technique and lightning fast reactions enable him to take out legions of Yakuzi and Samurai foes. This mix of bloody exploitation and dignified thoughtfulness is a unique mix that collapses the artificial distinction between "serious" and "popular" film.
We first encounter Zatoichi in a dirty prison where his blindness is exploited by the other inmates. They spill his gruel, forcing him to slobber on the filthy floor for meagre crumbs. After eventually being released, the tired old man continues his wanderings and meets up with a masterless Samurai "ronin" (Ken Ogata) who also enjoys painting. The contrast between the sightless Zatoichi and the ronin who has seen too much in the way of bloodshed over the course of his eventful life provides the subject matter for a great deal of musing between the two, who continue an uneasy relationship throughout the film. Sooner or later, we know that they will come into conflict: Zatoichi is essentially a loner and all his relationships are inevitably short-lived!
A complicated plot involving rival Yakuza gangs is the basis for most of the action. There is a lengthy intricate set-up -- which doesn't pay off until the final half hour of the two hour film -- in which the leader of one gang, Geomon (Ryuutaro Gan), tries to defeat another gang led by Boss Akabei (Yuya Uchida) with the help of a corrupt Government official who has acquired a cache of guns. Zatoichi gets on the wrong side of Geomon after having a big win at his gambling house and defeating a gang of goons sent by Geomon to take back his hard won takings. Zatoichi also befriends a pretty governess called Oume (Toyomi Kusano) and, for a short time, gets to enjoy an idyllic existence living surrounded by the playful cooing of her cute infant charges. Inevitably though, Zatoichi and his ronin sidekick get drawn into the complicated politics and Zatoichi has to once more take on his traditional role as defender of the innocent. The last fifteen minutes of the film features one of the bloodiest battles in the franchises history, although there is no sense of the finality that the reflective quality of the main body of the film initially promised.
This film was probably an attempt to revive and modernise the Zatoichi franchise rather than round it off for good. Therefore there is a misguided "modern", English-sung soft rock theme played throughout, whose synth-led funk stylings occasionally almost ruin the lovely period feel captured so beautifully in the borderline sepia cinematography (there are other scenes in which some wonderful traditional Japanese music is used very effectively though). Ultimately, the film works -- primarily as a result of Shintaro Katsu's poignant performance, which captures a world-weary lethargy and fatalism and combines it with a fierce sense of justice which ultimately wins out over the character's initial stoic acceptance of his poverty-stricken lot.
Arrow films present an acceptable widescreen anamorphic transfer of the film, although there are no extras included on the disc whatsoever.

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