There are more than a few ways to make a samurai movie. Given the range of ways a man can be dismembered alone, the diversity of executions and choreographed swordplay is boggling. And yet, in many ways, they remain largely the same movie--good finally triumphs over evil, as katana meets juicy, graphic flesh. Thankfully, it would seem room remains for both comic relief and musical numbers in the samurai world, all without abandoning the much-beloved katana.
Zatoichi is the most recent incarnation of a franchise last seen in Japan on both the silver screen and television over 10 years ago. First made immortal by the late Shintaro Katsu, the character of a travelling blind masseuse--secretly a samurai of inhuman skill--is reinvented by writer/director/editor/star Takeshi Kitano in a film whose eccentric sensibilities differentiate it from its bloodier relatives. At times a typical samurai tale, Zatoichi seamlessly combines action, comedy and drama without losing touch with the martial arts chic which has made the samurai an action staple in both North America and Asia.
After dispatching a gang of roadside assassins in a flurry of CG-rendered blades and blood, the film's blind namesake finds himself in a village besieged by a group of rival gangs, whose extortion is slowly bleeding the peasants dry. His arrival coincides with the appearance of the film's two primary narrative threads--a masterless samurai whose devotion to his dying wife has made him a bodyguard for hire (Tadanobu Asano) and a pair of Geishas bent on avenging their family (Daigoro Tachibana and Yuko Daike)--stories whose seemingly disparate paths soon find their way into Zatoichi's path.
Zatoichi is no simple action movie, though there is quick swordplay choreographed by Kitano abounds. It would also be inadequate to call it a comedy, even as the bumbling, unscrupulous Shinkichi (Gadarukanaru Taka) plays the fool to Zatoichi's cool veneer. And though the exploration of the tragic path of exploitation and corruption endured by the Geisha siblings is tragic, the film moves far too quickly to be called a drama.
In fact, Zatoichi strikes a perfect balance between the allure of the samurai mythos and its inherent absurdity, between the need for seamless action and delicate understanding. Where the absurdity of the highly choreographed fight sequences is sharply parodied as Shinkichi teaches a few students the finer (read: clumsier) points of swordplay, the audience is artfully drawn into the childhood of the Geishas and feel the pain of a lifetime spent in prostitution and robbery.
Zatoichi is a film utterly unabashed, a story where a blind samurai with a blood red sword-cane can walk into the sunset as tap dancers take to the stage in a final song-and-dance number. While maintaining all the slick production of a fantastic samurai tale, Zatoichi's story remains complex and engrossing.
Zatoichi opens at the Uptown Stage and Screen on Fri., Jun. 18.