Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. Today I review Takeshi Kitano’s remake/reboot of the classic 60’s chanbara series, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi.
(2003) Written and Directed by Takeshi Kitano
His sword made him a hero. His courage made him a legend. This summer, justice is blind.
What It’s About:
In Tokugawa-era Japan, blind, wandering masseur and master swordsman Zatoichi (Takeshi Kitano) takes up with a lone farmer, O-ume (Michiyo Okusu) and her gambling nephew Shinkichi (Gadarukanaru Taka), who live at the outskirts of a town in the midst of a conflict between opposing yakuza factions fighting for control of the gambling racket. At the same time, the Naruto siblings, one a geisha, Okinu (Yuko Daike), the other an onnagata Osei/Seitaro (Daigoro Tachibana, a real-life, classically trained Japanese onnagate, or female impersonator, actor, and recording artist), who are seeking to avenge themselves on the murderers of their parents, a gang of bandits including Boss Ogi (Saburo Ishikura) and Boss Ginzo (Ittoku Kishibi), two of the local yakuza oyabun. When another expert swordsman, yojimbo Hattori Gennosuke (Tadanobu Asano), who takes muscle jobs to support his ailing wife (Yui Natsukawa), sings on with the yakuza, it becomes inevitable that he and Zatoichi will cross swords.
Why I Bought It:
I’m a tremendous chanbara fan and have had an interest in Japanese samurai culture since I got into Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s epic feudal manga Lone Wolf And Cub (Kozure Okami) somewhere around eighth grade, which led me to the films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, and later Tatsuya Nakadai and Masaki Kobayashi. I first encountered “Beat” Takeshi in Kikujiro, a charming road movie that played at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago when I worked as an assistant manager.
So when I saw the first trailers for the platinum blonde haired Takeshi whipping the blood off a samurai sword in the rain, I was raring to go.
I only have a little experience with the original Zatoichi series from the sixties. I think I saw the first one, and the big crossover between Shintaro Katsu (the original Zatoichi) and Toshiro Mifune’s Sanjuro character, Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, so I went into this 2003 reboot/remake without any preconceived notions and loved it.
The dominant blue and red colors (of cotton, rain, and blood) are striking, and the action fast and bloody. Takeshi is an arresting physical presence whenever he’s on screen, disarmingly odd looking and goofy, yet clearly apt and deadly when he draws his sword. Maybe it’s the hair or the red cane sword, but your eyes go right to him. And yet, he’s not really ominipresent, nor even the driving character of the plot. I admit in this last viewing I was a little put off by the CGI blood and swords, which is just a little too bright and unreal, even a shade brighter than Hammer Studios blood. Most of the time I think the action was played out with sword hilts, the blades added later along with the blood spatter. It’s an interesting technique that I don’t think bothered me overly in the theater but perhaps doesn’t translate as well in HD home video.
While the action is great, with Zatoichi only a sideline character, the real strength of Blind Swordsman Zatoichi is in its supporting characters, particularly the two Naruto siblings, whose tragic backstory (the boy has been forced by their poverty to resort first to a life of prostitution and then to living as a female impersonator) is revealed as the story progresses. The two actors really sell it, particularly in a positively heartbreaking scene where, as Osei dances, Okinu plays the shamisen and reminisces about their hardships, including the first time Osei sold himself to a man for money to survive. Okinu watches Osei dance, and the scene match cuts between Osei’s performance in the present, and as a young boy, face painted and in a kimono. Okinu’s performance falters, causing Osei to ask if she’s alright. The camera meanwhile pans past Aunt O-ume, who is staring at Osei with a look of intense sadness, and finally rests on Shinkichi, who is stifling his own weeping.
Humor is used very effectively too, from the very first meeting between Zatoichi and O-ume. When they first meet, O-ume asks Zatoichi if he has a place to stay the night, and he elicits this kind of knowing half grin which she quickly shoots down with a not gonna happen kind of comment. In the very next scene, we hear O-ume moaning, Zatoichi grunting, and the camera tilts down to show Zatoichi apparently hunched over her, moving rhythmically, remarking that she’s ‘too tight’ etc. With a subtle camera movement, it’s revealed that he’s earning his keep by plying his trade as a masseur, nothing more.
There are other pretty hilarious scenes, from swordsmen blundering into cutting each other up when facing Zatoichi, to Shinkichi’s failed attempts at mimicking the masseuse’s apparently superhuman gambling skill, and spackling his face with geisha makeup after bemoaning that he “wants to be beautiful like Osei.” There’s a kind of overweight village idiot that dresses up in bushi armor and charges around and around with a spear, yelling like Teddy Brewster in Arsenic And Old Lace.
The main plot with the yakuza is admittedly a little thick, particularly after the showdown between Zatoichi and the bodyguard, which is precipitated when the two geishas try to make their move to wipe out their enemies and they are betrayed, forcing the blind man to come to their rescue. Zatoichi sets out to kill the mysterious bosses, who have been masquerading as innocuous innkeepers. There is a bit of strangeness where Zatoichi’s actual blindness comes into question. Has he been pretending he’s blind the entire time to put his enemies off guard? Has he merely trained himself to fight blind? His eyes, when he opens them are unnaturally bright, possibly cataracts. So was it a (pardon the pun) double blind? Is he a blind man who pretends to see when he faces the big boss? He certainly fights better in the dark, but there’s no definite answer.
The whole thing ends with a Bollywood style dance number.
Yeah, seriously. The whole supporting cast (surviving anyway) lines up smiling and performs a toe tapping percussion-style line dance in which even the two child actors who played the geisha and the onnagata as kids get a curtain call by digitially morphing seamlessly back and forth. It sounds ridiculous, but it really is pretty cool. I’d liken it to the musical sequence at the end of Slumdog Millionaire.
Percussion rhythm music shows up in the score a few times, with the shuffling of rice patty farmers, the spattering of rain on a paper umbrella, and the knocking of carpenter’s hammers and saws coming together into fascinating musical interludes.
When Aunt O-ume and Zatoichi first meet, the masseur carries her vegetables for her back to the farmhouse.
She says, “This must be quite a sight. I’m guiding a masseur, who’s carrying my vegetables.”
To which Zatoichi replies, “Wish I could see it.”
For me, the first time Zatoichi really cuts loose at the gambling parlor. After taking the house for a ride more than a few times, the yakuza decide to cheat the blind man and switch the dice Zatoichi’s been betting on all this time.
“Objections?” the dice roller asks, after slapping the cup down.
“Hey,” says Zatoichi, “the dice don’t sound the same.”
One of the yakuza utters an insult, and without any further discussion, Zatoichi whips out his blade and takes the dice roller’s arm off at the elbow. The next three swipes takes out the candles lighting the room, and then all hell breaks loose, with silver arcs flashing in the moonlight, slicing open shirts and bisecting the gamblers’ intricate tattoos.
Would I Buy It Again? It’s a bit of a tough call. For all my praise of it, the CGI bloodletting did put me off this go around, and I found the main Yakuza story to be muddled, the whole thing a bit episodic. I think I would. It’s a good modern day samurai flick, but it’s no 13 Assassins.
Next In The Queue: Blood Of Heroes