5-Word 365 #072 – Zatoichi

I’m getting this review out of the way early today, because this evening I am going along to the inaugural Edinburgh Short Film Night, run by the guys over at write-shoot-cut.com. Ought to be fun, and if you’re in Edinburgh on the second Monday of the month in future you should come along. I’ll maybe do a bit of a write-up on that later as well. But for now, here’s…

Zatoichi

Don’t piss off blind men.

This is the story of a blind masseur who also happens to be a master swordsman wandering through the Japanese countryside. Finding himself in a small town run by warring Yakuza gangs, he joins up with a pair of geisha siblings with a hidden agenda (amongst other things) to bring down the gangs.

If you mention Takeshi to someone and they respond with “Oh is that the guy with the castle?” slap them, then sit them down and show them this. This may be one of the funniest Japanese Edo-period films I have ever seen, as well as being full of awesome sword fights and bloodshed a-plenty. This would be a good gateway flick for someone that you want to get hooked on this man’s special brand of cinema.

In Kitano’s eleventh movie as director/star (for the record, my favourite is Brother), he takes on the legendary role of the travelling blindman with the cane sword – a staple of Japanese movies and television for decades – and makes it his own. The period aspect of this film might seem a far cry from Kitano’s usual setting, but it’s really not. There are similar themes to be found here as in his more contemporary movies: Yakuza, of course; vengeance; someone being drawn back into a violent world through circumstance (both Zatoichi himself, and the rodin Hattori, who takes a job as bodyguard to one of the gang leaders so that he can earn money to buy medical treatment for his wife). In Zatoichi though, Kitano mixes up his more violent gangster movies with the gentler comedies he has scattered throughout his CV. There are some real laugh out loud moments in this film. In the making-of documentary on the DVD, he says he wrote the comedy into the script as a release valve from all the violence. This is not really something he has felt a need to do before, but here it works.

And the "No shit, Sherlock" award goes to...

Visually, this movie is quite a radical departure for Kitano. Gone are the long, locked-down shots and in their place is a relatively manic set of camera moves. There are dollies, crane shots, quick edits, he even throws in the classic pan in/zoom out “Jaws shot” at one point. In trying to emulate the modern visual style of action movies, has he lost part of what makes his own films special? Nope. The great thing about Kitano’s cinematic output is the adaptability. This is just one more example of how awesome he is.

I'm glad this wasn't the uniform when I worked in a casino

Kitano has assembled an excellent cast for this film, including Ichi The Killer‘s Tadanobu Asano as Zatoichi’s ultimate opponent, Hattori. He does a great job of making this guy both an absolute badass and a very sympathetic person. He has no personal stake in this fight, he’s just a man doing the only job he is any good at in order to provide for his family. Michiyo Okusu and Guadalcanal Taka (how fantastic is that name?) are the farmer O-ume and her nephew Shinkichi respectively. O-ume gives the wanderer a place to stay while in town, and Shinkichi is the town’s resident bad gambler and source of most of the comedy. Daigorō Tachibana and Taichi Saotome play the geishas with a secret past, whose mission is taken on by Zatoichi. And they all (except Asano) show up in the show-stopping dance number at the film’s climax. Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that?

Oh yeah

B-movie fans of a certain vintage who are not already familiar with the character of Zatoichi may recognise the “blind swordsman” trope from that 1989 classic Blind Fury, starring Rutger Hauer and Terry “John Locke” O’Quinn. While getting a bit of background on this flick today, I found out that Blind Fury is actually a direct remake of the 17th in the original cycle of Zatoichi movies, Zatoichi Challenged. I love Blind Fury. My brother and sister and I must have damn near worn out our tape of that flick when we were kids. Now I need to go and find the old Zatoichi movies as well. I wonder if there’s a boxset available…

Go ahead, punk. Make my day.

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