Takeshi Kitano's "Zatoichi," An Irreverent Take on the Blind Swordsman
by Peter Brunette
When Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano's first international hit, "Hana-bi" (Fireworks), was released, many critics, including this one, thought that they had been granted a privileged glimpse of the future of cinema. An enthralling combination of genre movie and foreign art film, "Hana-bi" indulged the audience's legitimate desire for spectacle yet also provided the resonant, stick-to-the-ribs ambiguity associated with art films. Since that time, however, Kitano has tipped this fragile, rarely achieved balance almost completely in favor of the generic (usually gangster films) and the comedic, which he is best known for in Japan.
Alas, comedy is notorious for traveling badly and subsequent films like "Kikujiro" and "Brother" have been largely unfunny and painful to sit through. (Granted, they may very well be regarded as absolutely hilarious by a Japanese audience.) Kitano's latest, "The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi," while always thoroughly watchable, once again fails to achieve the heights of "Hana-bi." Yet the film's often delicate merging of martial-arts genre elements with perky if occasionally over-broad comedy will win it many admirers. (Miramax opens it on Friday.)
What separates "Zatoichi" from other swordfight movies is that the eponymous hero, played, of course, by Kitano himself, is blind. Like the many other directors of films featuring this well-known character, Kitano gets a lot of mileage out of this fact, as we ooh and aah over Zatoichi's colorful ability to defeat multiple opponents by using all his highly-developed senses. As can be expected, the jokes concerning blindness, some of them funny, also run freely.
The fight scenes, interestingly enough, are more traditional in form, remaining within the realm of actual human possibility, rather than partaking of the high-flying, gravity-defying trapeze acts popularized by "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and flamboyantly on display in Chinese director Zhang Yimou's two most recent films, "Hero" and "The House of Flying Daggers." There's also a brevity and economy of gesture that mark even the climactic fight scene in "Zatoichi" and that seem, to this non-expert at least, to mark a specifically Japanese rather than Chinese sensibility. Happily, much of the potentially repetitive fighting is undercut by humorous moments, as when a swordsman whips out his sword but only succeeds in nearly cutting off the arm of his comrade standing next to him. (This gag is less funny the second time it is used.) At other moments, arms and legs are lopped off, giving rise to the generically familiar, but always welcome, sight of spurting arteries.
One problem is that the forward movement of "Zatoichi" often threatens to grind to a halt and, especially in the beginning, the movie features little narrative impetus. A plot of sorts eventually develops, by means of two geishas bent on revenging the slaughter of their family -- one of the geishas is actually a man -- but it serves, as usual, mostly to provide an excuse for lots more fighting.
Much of the thematic spirit of the film is an homage to Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai," that Ur-text that no Japanese swordfight movie can ever escape. Thus, as in that earlier film, much is made of the way the samurai figures are forever alienated from the common people. A wonderful motif that occurs several times has the villagers working (hammering wood, hoeing fields) in delightful unison with a heavily punctuated tune on the soundtrack. It's funny and charming all at once.
This is an example of the best thing about the movie, Kitano's flighty, irreverent way of sticking in whatever occurs to him at any given moment. (For example, the film ends on a scene of communal tap dancing whose import completely escaped me. A celebration that brings the film, set in the 19th century, into the present?) But this is a high-risk strategy, obviously, and other bits just don't work, as when the village idiot, a samurai wannabe, runs screaming around a house, over and over. A couple of "Three Stooges"-style skits, focusing on Zatoichi's hapless sidekick, also fall flat. In another scene, when Kitano wants to contrast the geishas as children and as adults, he crosscuts between them so many times that a bored impatience quickly sets in.
At the very end, a couple of unexpected reversals will surprise some, but most viewers won't be too invested in plot by this point. Instead, they'll be enjoying the modest amusement and diversion many of the film's vignettes consistently provide.