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Zatoichi - The Blind Swordsman (Kitano Takeshi 2003)


Zatoichi - The Blind Swordsman

Genre: Samurai par Excellence

review in one breath

"Even those who are not blind fail to see many things."

I assume we all know and love the Zatoichi character starring in a huge number of samurai films ranging from Zatoichi 1 (1962) to Zatoichi 26 (1989) (!). Fortunately, director Kitano Takeshi (aka Beat Takeshi) didn't title his rendition "Zatoichi 27", but instead brings a rather fresh, contemporary approach to this otherwise classic character.

Kitano not only directs, but also stars as Zatoichi himself and brings to the character the sharp edge Kitano is otherwise known for. Whereas the classic versions of Zatoichi, perhaps most adequately played by the loveable Katsu Shintaro, had a palpable humanitarianism permeating the stories' philosophy, Kitano chooses to emphasize the brutality of the times and the violence with which justice (and injustice) is so fatefully meted out. Thus Kitano's Zatoichi is very short on words and very long on formidable displays of sword-induced violence.

In this regard, Zatoichi utilizes the latest CG effects to more thoroughly visualize the inevitable outcome of swinging incredibly sharp swords. Although not yet perfected, these techniques bring a level of guttural reality as Zatoichi's sword cuts through everything except the tin can on the Ginsu knife commercial. We are privy as never before to the impact of Zatoichi's sword upon fingers, hands, arms, legs, torsos, tattooed backs, necks, foreheads, eyes, and yes, even a groin or two. (Youch!). Thus the level of violence and the attempt at depicting a brutal realism separates Kitano's project from the many preceding it.

And yet Zatoichi is polished in many more aspects than merely realistic violence. The characters throughout the storyline are top-notch and include many major names, perhaps most notably Asano Tadanobu who plays Hattori Gennosuke, the formidable ronin turned yojimbo (bodyguard) against which Zatoichi must ultimately battle. Hattori is hired as bodyguard by Ginzou (Kishibe Ittoku), who terrorizes the town merchants in his demands for money and power in the service of his boss, the enigmatic elderly leader of the region's yakuza whose members possess concealed tattoos of serpents.

In classic fashion, through Zatoichi's befriending of those who are oppressed by the bad guys, and his penchant for gambling with dice in what might otherwise be deemed "dens of iniquity", Zatoichi inevitably finds himself in the thick of things. Add to this, of course, his widespread notoriety as a formidable killer, and things soon reach the boiling point.

This testosterone-fueled version of Zatoichi is certainly one to see. Rather than merely retell a classic tale in contemporary parlance, Kitano brings to his production so much that is new, whether it be the dramatic realism he effectively creates, or the comedic elements dispersed throughout, including the impressive yet subtle choreography of the farmhand and construction workers' movements synced to the film's background music. Violence runs high, but there is enough character development and meaningful nuance to make this much more than a mere samurai bloodfest.

Version reviewed: Unsubtitled VHS

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
There seemed to be quite a bit of CG experimentation which really paid off here. In one way, this is a showcase for the degree of realistic sword violence Japanese cinema is currently capable of. From the opening scenes, straight through to the blood-soaked conclusion, this film makes the Wild West look like Sunday catechism. Apparently even in ancient Japan, one had to be very careful about what one might find lurking beneath a pretty maiden's kimono. The realistic sword fights were very impressive, as was the completely unexpected twist at the end regarding Zatoichi. This is definitely a Zatoichi for the 21st century.

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