October 19, 2003

The Blind Swordsman: Zatôichi

Starring “Beat” Takeshi and Tadanobu Asano Reviewedy Martin Tsai

Zatôichi the blind swordsman was a popular folk character in Japanese cinema during the 1960s and 1970s. In the fashion of James Bond and Star Trek, the franchise has spawned some 26 films. But before their recent DVD releases in North America, most of these remained little seen in this part of the world. Takeshi Kitano’s The Blind Swordsman: Zatôichi, which garnered audience awards at both the Toronto and Venice film festivals this year, will surely fuel interest in this nearly forgotten franchise.

The new film is certainly entertaining in a cartoonish way. Although likely to disappoint loyal Kitano fans, it will delight those who enjoy the chopsocky parts of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill. The film has some expertly choreographed sword fight scenes to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. In fact, these scenes are so captivating that they make you forget the film’s plot is paper-thin.

Kitano, who previously parodied Zatôichi in Getting Any?, has bleached his hair to portray the title character seriously. The swordsman is under the disguise of a masseur, with his weapon hidden in his cane. He finds himself in a town besieged by rival gangs, and goes about righting the wrongs and cleaning up the mess.

However, what really needs cleaning up here is this somewhat scattershot film. Some of the movie’s stylistic choices make Zatôichi seem like more of a mess than Kitano’s awkward cultural exchange film Brother. There are many explicit, rapid-fire fight scenes, while the comedic and dramatic bits in between are quite uneventful. There is also a Stomp-like, percussion-driven score by Keiichi Suzuki, complete with tap-dancing musical interludes. Although somewhat amusing, these elements come off as rather misguided attempts at ingenuity.

Kitano is best known for contemporary-set, retreat-themed tales involving yakuzas or Japanese youths. He often stages scenes with economy and efficiency – showing the beginning, then jump cutting to the payoff for maximum effect. His previous films also featured his own paintings and haunting scores by Joe Hisaishi (who also scored Spirited Away). But Zatôichi is devoid of any of these signature touches that established Kitano as an auteur.

Although this film may finally establish Kitano as a viable director internationally, it’s totally slight when measured against the director’s best works. For long time Kitano fans, it can be exciting to see the director venturing into new themes and new styles. But watching this mediocre-at-best film will probably only serve as a reminder of how fantastic his earlier works such as Sonatine and Fireworks were.

© 2003 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.