By Johnathan Kroncke
By Johnathan Kroncke
Samurai swords, blood, guts, betrayal, revenge, murder and just a hint of comic relief to take the edge off. Now this is what a movie should be.
Enter “Zatoichi,” the tale of a blind masseur, unassuming in appearance, but an unstoppable force to anyone who crosses him. He stands hunched over, cane in hand, walks very slowly and cannot see the nose in front of his face. However, looks can obviously be deceiving. Like Zatoichi himself, his cane is also not as it appears, harboring a deadly samurai sword just below the durable yet elegant wooden finish.
The film opens with a group of men bullying the blind Zatoichi and stealing his cane just for kicks. They act as if they’re going to slice him in two when he jumps up and dispatches the three standing in front of him without hesitation. His movements, so fluid, are almost too quick even when the action is in slow motion.
Zatoichi later finds himself in the care of a gentle woman who tends to the rice fields nearby. Every day, the “village idiot,” as he is referred to, runs around the house pretending to be a samurai warrior and screaming his head off as if he were charging into battle.
Along with Zatoichi’s story arc, we are shown two additional sets of characters. First is the ronin, or masterless samurai, named Gennosuke Hattori who finds work as a bodyguard for a very powerful local gang who also happen to be the main antagonists of the film. Hattori is not an evil person by nature but, like Zatoichi, he is deadly with a blade and must find work in order to care for his dying wife.
The second additional group of characters are the two geisha girls O-sei and O-kinu who are shown deceiving and strangling a man to death in their first time on screen. The audience later discovers that they have been on a mission for the last 10 years to find those who were responsible for murdering their entire family.
Zatoichi himself is very much against people taking advantage of others and displays this quality many times, as with the case of bullies taking his cane. In a small gambling hut that Zatoichi frequented, he discovered the workers were cheating and proceeded to murder every last one of them in a gruesome fashion.
Director Takeshi Kitano, who also played Zatoichi and wrote the screenplay, is a cultural icon in Japan and it is easy to see why. In addition to directing such brutal and controversial films as “Battle Royale,” he also acts in varied roles, is a novelist as well as a major Japanese award-winner.
“Zatoichi” is most definitely a masterpiece of Japanese cinematic art. Set in 19th century Japan and filled with plot twists and several laugh-out-loud scenes along with some incredible traditional Japanese dances, the film’s beauty is hard to ignore and is easily better than most of the recycled, rehashed and reused material that generally shows up in American theaters.
In fact, the only drawback that the film may have, Kitano-san has already addressed. The blood gushing from the victims in the spectacular and lightening quick fight scenes has been described as “too CGI.” It looks very fake and not up to the standard of what can be done in movies these days.
However, Kitano-san responded to this by saying that he intended it to look that way in order to “soften the shock to the audience.” He felt that some of the scenes of Zatoichi and Hattori slicing foes in two would have been a little too graphic and, instead, intended for the blood to appear as “flowers blossoming across the screen.”
In either case, it certainly does not take away form the brilliance of the fight choreography or hilarity of the cross-dressing geisha telling the rice farmer’s nephew that make-up only works on beautiful people.
It is an incredible movie all around and is far more enjoyable in its original Japanese language with the English subtitles. While some movie-goers may shy away from a movie where you have to read, the dialogue is not extensive by any means and should not be a deterrent to miss this extraordinary piece of work.
Bottom line, whether you submerge yourself in all things Asian or have never even tried kung-pao chicken, movie lovers of all kind will find something to like about this film. If heart, comedy, drama and a whole lot of death-dealing is what your inner samurai craves, then run to “Zatoichi.”