Zatoichi

September 13th, 2004 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Written and Directed By: Takeshi Kitano

Starring: Takeshi Kitano

Takeshi Kitano (‘Beat’, as he’s known) is the crown prince of the Japanese entertainment industry and perhaps the hardest working man in show business in all of Asia.

Starting his 25 year career in stand up comedy at a strip club, he capitalised on his growing renown to conquer almost every creative art there is. Appearing in no less than three weekly Japanese TV shows, he’s still an accomplished stage performer, has had novels and collections of short stories published, and has received acclaim for his paintings and poetry.

But it’s his film career that most people outside Japan know him for. It was mostly Japanese movie fans who knew of the extraordinary reach of his skills until the successful releases of 1993’s Sonatine and 1997’s Hana-Bi, and following the release of 2000’s Brother (Katino’s first film outside Japan), he became an international action star of the distinctly poetic sort, bringing extraordinary bouts of violence to the screen amid show-stopping and at times beautiful imagery.

A veteran of almost 40 films, Kitano frequently writes, directs, edits and stars in his films. He’s usually a yakuza gangster, but has opted in Zatoichi to play a blind masseur some time around the fifteenth century. It’s a step away from his previous role (most of which have been set in the present, the bloodshed caused by guns), and Zatoichi is a step away from his previous movies.

For starters, there’s plenty of humour, and anyone who saw the desolate and damning Brother will find it a surprise. At times it’s outright slapstick, and seems to sit uneasily against the rest of the film.

In fact, Zatoichi’s biggest flaw is in trying to encompass too many genres that just don’t go together comfortably. Special mention should be made of the blood, which will be the reason many fans will go and see a Kitano film. Where Kill Bill’s bloodshed was over the top as an homage to Hong Kong action films, Zatoichi’s violence is off the scale. So computer animated it can only be an in joke between Kitano and the audience, the fountains of blood and flying limbs that shower off victims with every strike are hyper real (Kitano himself has said he wanted it to be obvious it was done by computer to lessen the impact).

But after setting you up for what you think will be an orgy of gleefully fun computer generated swordplay, little happens for the next hour as we follow a wandering plot that follows a group of people and their various agendas in the story, made all the more confusing from repeated flashbacks that show you their back stories (many of which you won’t even realise as being flashbacks until they’re over).

Kitano is Ichi, an old man with a cane who shuffles into a small Hamlet in a grip of fear as two warring gangs extort money from the residents and wage their turf war for the spoils. He’s put up by a kindly woman, falls in with her buffoon nephew who’s addicted to gambling and seems to want nothing more than to mind his own business. Two geisha girls with a sad history and a deadly secret come into the fray, and the story also covers the rival gang bosses and their respective henchmen and the ronin (masterless samurai) hired by one of them as a bodyguard, the man who’ll eventually face off against Ichi.

Straight comedy and human drama sit side by side (although it’s more a case of elbowing each other in the face), and in a truly bizarre turn, the entire cast breaks into a Bollywood-style song and dance number after the climax.

The action scenes, where Ichi reveals himself to in fact be a master swordsman who’s seemingly indestructible, are too few and far between if that’s what you’re seeing it for. The rest of the time, you’ll have enough difficulty keeping up with who everyone is and what they have to do with the story. Although technically adept, it’s far from Kitano’s best work. His talents lie with the sort of bleak and ultra violent underworld dramas filmmakers like Tarantino draws inspiration from.


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