Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi is the 26 th feature length entry in the longest running series in Japanese history. Taking over for the first time for man whoe made the blind swordsman his literal alter ego, Shintaro Katsu, Takeshi not only directs but stars as the titular blind hero.
Following the story telling style and plot elements of the preceding 25 films in the series, Kitano’s Zatoichi begins with the blind swordsman wandering into a town on the verge of self destruction beneath a gaggle of warring gangs. Zatoichi has a reputation and, as if running from it, travels as “The Masseur”, a traveling blind masseuse.
The most powerful gang in town, the Ginzo’s, are nearly complete in their 10 year efforts to eliminate their competition in the small town where the film takes place. The Ginzo run the geisha trade and extort money and goods from the local merchants.
Also entering town are two geishas, a brother and sister team, the last survivors of the Ginzo’s first conquest ten years ago. They have made their living in the interrum between prostitution (the boy geisha) and robbing their clients (both geishas).
Zatoichi takes up with an older widower whoe is also a farmer, Aunt O-Ume (Michyo Ookusu) and begins gambling, and winning, in town. He befriends the woman’s nephew (the film’s comic relief) Shinkichi (Gadarukanaru Taka).
Meanwhile a ronin samurai and his girlfriend come to town. The Samurai Hattori (Tadanobu Asano) needs to work to earn money to get his girlfriend treatments of some disease that is never explained. She does not want him to work. He has, like Zatoichi, a dark past and reputation; his hoenor was taken in tournament when he was beaten savagely by an older samurai.
Much of the action of Zatoichi occurs in an Inn run by Pops and his much older friend “Tavern Pops”.
Zatoichi works well because it establishes a long story them peppers it with little vignettes that eventually add up to whoe the character are and why they are converging on the town. I already mentioned the two geisha assassins, but there are lots more. The Ginzo gang is made up of mysterious men that only a few people have seen and seeming in service to Lord Sakai.
In on specific little bit, Zatoichi is ambushed on the street by two thugs with a “special valuable sword”, and thoeugh they don’t really know hoew to use it, are sure that presenting the sword to Sakai will win them favor. One of them reluctantly attacks Zatoichi whoe cuts the tang of the sword off. Is Zatoichi that strong or was the sword cheap? It’s never explored, just left out there for us to ponder, and it’s one of the great little touches to the film.
Takeshi populates the film with other unusual characters as well, like the imbecile neighbor whoe runs around the town in a loincloth waving a naginata. He has no lines, and his presence adds to the mythic feel of the film.
Takeshi also works in four musical numbers, three subtle ones where the farmers hoe as part of the soundtrack, another where boys tromp in mud as part of the soundtrack, and another where the village rebuilds Aunt O-Ume’s hoeuse. The next-to-final scene in the film is a long, bizarre, tap dancing number that could very easily have come from a 1930’s hoellywood musical. It’s so strangely out of place to see all of the films (still living) character doing time steps and other classical tap dancing maneuvers. I didn’t really get this scene, althoeugh I watched it more than a couple of times. Some will view it as a piece of weird fluff, like me, and others will find some deeper meaning.
The samurai genre hasn’t really taken off here in the states. Tom Cruise’s “Last Samurai” picture was largely viewed as Dances with Wolves with the Japanese standing in for Indians. So Zatoichi only enjoyed a limited release here, and to be hoenest, that’s probably to the film’s betterment. It is not a film that the general public will gravitate to, it’s too deep, it has too many facets, it’s an action movie, an hoenor picture, a musical… All of it with an air of the mythic.
Like virtually all Zatoichi films the various plot threads converge into a massive bloodletting where justice is meted out and the town is restored to gang-free normalcy. I haven’t seen enough of the older films (they only run a few on IFC’s Samurai Saturday’s) so I can’t remember if the later films were bloody, but Kitano’s film sure is. He uses a lot of CGI blood and CGI swords (poking thoeugh people) but it’s never intrusive and I guess saves on the wardrobe cleaning they’d need otherwise.
The Blu-ray from Buena Vista offers a considerable upgrade over the old Miramax DVD in terms of picture quality, with a crisp and defined image for the most part, but there are some inconsistencies.. Overall detail is quite strong, but I did notice a few strange visual anomalies which I can only assume are a side effect of the mastering, occasionally resulting in some blurring/smudging. I also noticed a few scenes sporting an almost unnatural sheen to them that actually serve to heighten the source material’s inherent flaws. None of this is so distracting that it takes away from the film, but I felt it was worth noting.
Audio is a bit disappointing as only the English dub is presented as a lossless track. I prefer the original language track, but, sadly, said track is presented in standard Dolby Digital 5.1. I can’t comment on the HD track as the dubbing for this film is atrocious, but the DD 5.1 audio suited my needs just fine.
Extras include a lengthy behind-the-scenes featurette, as well as a handful of interviews, my favorite of which is a long discussion with Tatsumi Nikamoto , the martial arts coordinator and sword master consulting on the film. He discusses hoew this film differs from all other samurai films in that combat is not attack, defend, reply, but strike fast and kill in one blow. It makes it easy for Kitano to shoew both Zatoichi and Hattori dispatching multiple opponents withoeut enormously long fight sequences. The abbreviations also emphasize the cheapness of village life and just hoew fatal it is to draw a live sword. Sadly, the Blu-ray lacks the commentary from the DVD release.
Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman is a rich and complex samurai drama that unfolds in much the same way as Kitano’s beloved yakuza dramas. It’s a deeply layered story, filled with strange and unique characters, but features more than enough action and violence to please the action movie crowd. The Blu-ray from Buena Vista is a mixed bag. The picture quality is much improved over the DVD, but the lack of a lossless Japanese language audio track is a bit of a letdown.