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Contemporary Japanese icon, Takeshi Kitano’s almost conventional take on the longtime samurai classic, "Zatoichi," is more than a simple revenge tale; it's a remake that weaves the unique style of a modern filmmaker into the arena of a timepiece with light disregard.
The Blind Swordsman (Zatoichi)
Production Co.: Office Kitano/Bandai Visual/Tokyo FM/Dentsu/TV Asahi/Saito Entertainment
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Renaissance actor, director, writer, comedian and painter Takeshi Kitano molds his unique “soft/hard” style to the reissue of the prolific and commercially successful story of blind master swordsman, Zatoichi. Rarely diverging from the samurai revenge tale template forged from the original Zatoichi television shows and movies circa the '60s and '70s, Kitano’s Zatoichi delightfully combines his romantic introspection, dark humor, and modern pop influences to pay homage (with a slashing twist) to its predecessors.
The story centers on an old master swordsman who conceals his adept warrior ability under the guise of a blind masseur with a cane. Shuffling into a town simmering with skyrocketing Cg blood conflict between various battling yakuza clans vying for dominance, he crosses paths with a myriad of individuals: a struggling farmer, her inept clown nephew, two masquerading geishas and a prideful ronin. With a delicate touch, Kitano successfully pushes these chess pieces around the board before the backdrop of a simple samurai revenge tale.
Long lamented within the vein of revenge tales since Akira Kurasawa’s The Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai), the suffering farmer character, finds her place on the sideline, while Kitano delves into a more intricate vengeance sought by the two “disproportioned” geishas. Kitano traces the pair’s desire through a series of emotional flashbacks woven into a traditional geisha musical and dance sequence that grieves not only the loss of life, but their loss of innocence spawned from the vicious slaughter of their parents. Closing out the circle of underdogs is the farmer’s nephew as the silly “clown” that you cannot help but feel sorry for while laughing at as he gets clobbered while teaching locals to fence (which he cannot), and paints his face like a woman’s to be “beautiful” (which he does not).
On the other side of the blade, the ronin-for-hire is Kitano’s respectful nod towards the samurai staple. Kitano imbues him with qualities reminiscent of lonely Murakawa from his contemporary Sonatine: helpless against the reigns of fear, fate and human pride. Cut from the same cloth, Tadanobu Asano’s ronin character is recruited by one of the clan leaders as a bodyguard to make ends meet for his wife’s terminal sickness. He then systematically proceeds to eradicate the competing clans at his new master’s command. Kitano harmoniously pulls all these strings together into a final gruesome showdown between Zatoichi, ronin, and the clans.
Kitano is also able to deftly slice his comedic tendencies into the levity of samurai revenge storyline with a mischievous glow that harks back to the dark humor found in the classic arena of samurai action films. However, there lies a slight divergence in their respective presentation. While traditionally in Zatoichi pieces the comic relief flowed mainly from within the context of the film, Kitano’s modern comedic touch seems a tad more extraneous of the piece. The instances of the botched sword-testing, the play with effeminate masculinity, and the semi-nude, semi-samurai neighborhood idiot, seemingly tend to entertain and add depth to the experience, rather than the film itself. Hilarious as his plethora of laughs is, it also lends a sense of absurdity and disconnection to the film that is quintessentially Kitano.
Also sprinkled throughout the piece are heightening aesthetic touches that he integrates into the cinematography and musical score. For instance, the umbrella scene as shot from a bird’s eye view plays on the bright color and two-dimensional perspectives of the shot pulling a more natural and surreal layer over the piece. Likewise, Kitano’s stylistic use of long lens static visuals also finds a place here in constant shots of the countryside and the immobile surroundings of the hare-paced Zatoichi. Like his camera work, Kitano’s presentation of sound is even more peculiar and off-beat in this recent rendition. In one scene he sets a percussion section to the sporadic beat of farmers working in a rice field, and later these same “farmers” spring up into the credits, performing an all out festive pop, tap and stomp dance.
Although somewhat slack when he attempts to substantiate character and story development, his Cg action sequences skyrocketing with blood and jolly disjunctive comedy help keep interest piqued as Kitano seeks to push more depth into the film. Satiable as both a samurai revenge flick as well as a light dip into the study of human nature, Kitano’s synthetic style never fails as it seeps through to combine the old with the new and the real with the unbelievable.
http://office-kitano.co.jp/zatoichi/ (Official site in Japanese)
Date Posted: 5/21/2004