Film Review – The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, by Takeshi Kitano

Zatoichi-2003_1.jpgFinally, we come to my first and only samurai flick of this curriculum. Oddly enough, I mistakenly added Zatoichi to my list thinking it was a different film. I had planned on watching The Twilight Samurai, which is much different, but mistakenly substituted ‘blind’ for ‘twilight’ in my Google search and came upon Zatoichi. I am not disappointed because Zatoichi is a ridiculous movie and a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

There is an entire series of films about Zatoichi, the character, starting from 1962 to the current decade. He is something of a pop-culture icon in Japan that I’d never heard about until researching this movie. He’s nearly always depicted as a blind swordsman and masseur who travels around gambling and doling out justice and massages, not always in that order. The series spans almost 30 films, making it one of the longest running movie series of all time. The best Western analogy I can conjure is that of James Bond, and much like Bond, Zatoichi has been played by numerous actors.

In this installment, Zatoichi is played by the director of the film, Takeshi Kitano, an elder version of the blind swordsman. Zatoichi wanders into an Edo period village where several warring gangs are wrecking havoc upon the townspeople, which seems a common theme in the Zatoichi genre. We see things through Zatoichi’s eyes, but also through the eyes of a pair of revenge-bound siblings, Osei and Okinu, Aunt Oume and her gambling nephew Shinkichi, and a wandering ronin, Hattori, who joins up with the gangs despite his honor. Though Zatoichi at times feels like a silly excuse to indulge in violence, there are threads of storytelling in here that are woven together quite well, and touching moments in the film that are completely unexpected.

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This wouldn’t be a samurai flick without an ultimate showdown, and this takes form in a tense and building rivalry between Zatoichi and Hattori. Each are shown at various points as masters of what they do, cutting down adversaries in seconds whenever threatened. Zatoichi is commonly attacked without provocation, though not always as one scene in a gambling house would attest to, and in nearly every encounter he has slain his foes before many of them can blink. The conceit here is that he is blind, and thus his other senses are heightened to such a point that he does not need vision to excel at swordplay. He’s a pre-cursor of sorts to the comic book hero, Daredevil. He hides his abilities by outwardly appearing feeble and doddering and even mentally suspect. Hattori, who seems like a sympathetic figure at first because he only seeks to save his dying wife, seems to relish the violence that he inflicts on anyone that he is pointed towards. Their final showdown, in true samurai fashion, is short and final.

A few things about Zatoichi surprised me: the use of computer generated violence being the most obvious thing. Whenever blood splashes or a sword is thrust into a torso, the effect is enhanced with CG. It’s obvious, and apparently intentional as the director has claimed that he wanted to subdue or change the nature of the frequent violent depictions. I’ll admit, the use of these enhancements did change the nature of my viewing. I can think of any number of films where egregious violence is disturbing to watch, I’m thinking about a few Tarentino features, but in Zatoichi it’s never anything more than comical. This downplays the violence and never allows it a foothold into reality. Is this good or bad? I’m not entirely sure. Zatoichi is campy, and camp has a way of nullifying what might be considered horrible. In a way, the over-the-top gore removes the power of its violence. It’s unrealistic, even if we assuredly understand that real violence is all too common.

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It also surprised me just how funny Zatoichi is. There are characters who exist purely for comic relief, namely Shinkichi and a young man, called simply baka (idiot), who runs around for the entire film half-naked with a spear and screaming at the top of his lungs. There are a few scenes with Shinkichi that caused me laugh-out-loud moments, and some hokey stuff throughout the film that had me smiling. At the same time, there are incredibly poignant, emotional scenes, one involving a transgender geisha, who is incredibly well portrayed for a film from 2003, that put my jaw on the floor. Everything about Zatoichi is so all over the place that it’s impossible to condemn anything about it, even if it’s kind of a ridiculous movie. To cap everything off, the very end of the movie is a five minute long dance number in pure Bollywood style that is both amazing and impressive, and if you watch nothing else about this movie, please watch the clip. I could hardly believe what I was seeing.

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