Blind, blond, and bloody 

click to enlarge screens-zatoichi_330jpg
Japanese phenomenon Beat Takeshi brings 21st-century aesthetics to bear on a '60's icon, the blind swordsman.

'60s samurai hero resurrected by contemporary arthouse darling

Takeshi Kitano, aka Beat Takeshi, is ubiquitous in Japanese culture; known stateside as the writer and director of unusually artful gangster movies, he is also an actor, author, and gameshow host in his home country. In his latest film, the first to be set in the era of samurai and feudal lords, Kitano takes on a personality as well-known as his own: Zatoichi, the blind swordsman, star of two dozen films and a string of appearances in other media dating back to the early '60s.

Zatoichi, like the American television version of the Hulk, wanders from town to town getting in trouble. A blind man who ostensibly makes his living as a masseur, he also resembles another Marvel Comics character: Like Daredevil, he makes up for his sightlessness with other exceptionally keen senses. Zatoichi can hear where trouble stands, and can plant his sword (concealed in a walking stick until the right moment) in an opponent's chest before his weapon is drawn. He can also identify people by smell, and can tell how dice fall by listening carefully - a nice trick for a masseur who supplements his income with gambling binges.

Shintaro Katsu, who made this role famous, was a chubby, unbeautiful man who added a layer of texture to the part. Not only was this martial virtuoso blind, he also looked and moved like somebody you wouldn't trust with janitorial duties. Kitano, on the other hand, is a badass: His hair is dyed blond, he is sly and lean, and the walking stick concealing his blade looks less like a beggar's implement than something bought at Neiman-Marcus. This is slightly disappointing, as one of the old series' pleasures was the disparity between appearance and ability. The bad guys deserved what they got not only because they were evil, but because they so grossly underestimated their opponent.

In this adventure, Zatoichi is not simply helping innocent villagers defend themselves from marauders. He is stepping into a long-marinating revenge plot. Two siblings, whose parents were murdered years ago, have become geishas who finance their long payback scheme by ripping off their clients and killing the ones who turn out to have been part of the crime.

The geishas' story is told in a flashback, one of two elliptical sequences that remind you this is a movie by Takeshi Kitano. Where his earlier crime dramas strayed from conventional storytelling in bolder ways, this one is satisfied with a pair of easily navigated detours. The filmmaker's oddness is more pronounced in a string of musical events planted throughout the film: Every so often, the action passes by a field where workers, say, are building a house with hammers and saws whose actions add up to found-sound folk music. These interludes are a little goofy, and aren't as organically connected to the film as similar moments in Tony Gatlif's Vengo or Lars Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark. But their oddness is at least in keeping with the movie's screwy comic overtones.

Zatoichi

Dir. Takeshi Kitano; writ. Kitano, based on the novels by Kan Shimozawa; feat. Kitano, Michiyo Ookusu, Gadarukanaru Taka, Daigoro Tachibana, Yuuku Daike, Tadanobu Asano, Yui Natsukawa, Ittoku Kishibe (R)
More than once, when the sightless swordsman encounters multiple opponents at once, the villains wind up slicing each other instead of their victim. In the best of these slapstick moments, Zatoichi's slacker sidekick attempts to instruct three young men in fighting techniques. It's as if we were watching a Hollywood hack try to play Kurosawa: He ends up getting the snot slapped out of him by his students.

A more predictable way in which this film differs from its predecessor is its special effects. Rejecting all the traditional ways in which blood is made to spurt from severed heads, Kitano uses generous helpings of computer graphics. The appeal is obvious: When Kitano's swordslingers go at each other, we see the blades enter one side of a torso and emerge from the other; shots needn't be choreographed for sleight-of-hand editing, and the limbs being severed needn't be crafted out of latex.

Unfortunately, what has made it onto the screen looks less believable than the blood squibs of yesteryear. Every crimson drop that sprays looks like a pixel planted by technicians, and one chopped-off hand flies through the air looking more fake than a rubber chicken. Most amusingly, attentive viewers will see that a few wounds jiggle around on the actor's body, the CG effect unable to keep up with the real world's tiny movements.

Maybe this is the effect Kitano desired, a layer of visible artifice to echo the tongue-in-cheek comedy and the Stomp-like musical interruptions. But it doesn't quite hang together, and while the film is enjoyable in many ways, the plot and pacing aren't compelling enough to withstand the distractions. It certainly looks like Beat Takeshi had a good time crafting this encounter with a legend, but Zatoichi's sandals don't fit him as well as his own. •

By John DeFore


Zato-no-show

New movies take a back seat to corporate belt-tightening

A few weeks ago, Miramax Films offered journalists a chance to interview Takeshi Kitano (aka "Beat" Takeshi) before the opening of Zatoichi. As Kitano is one of the most exciting voices in Japanese film, and this feature adds a samurai icon to the mix, we jumped at the chance. Interviews were to be conducted via email, through a translator.

Unfortunately, Miramax fired over 10 percent of its work force last week, and one of the axe's victims was the staffer who had been steering these email interviews back and forth. (Miramax layoffs reflect the studio's decreased production schedule this year; many feel these cost-cutting measures anticipate a move by studio honcho Harvey Weinstein, whose relationship with execs at parent company Disney is tense.) According to publicists, the email interviews then became the responsibility of that staffer's boss, who is currently on vacation.

At press time, we were assured that we'd have our answers in time to post them here (we envisioned a handful of Miramaxers huddled around the ex-employee's computer, trying to get into his or her email inbox), so we ran a web-exclusive announcement in the paper. Sadly, the email never came.

The most urgent questions we had for Kitano involved the film's use of computer-generated special effects. Why did he decide to go that route? Did he feel the effects were successful? (We didn't.) Did he perhaps enjoy the idea that they weren't entirely realistic? Were they, like the slapstick and musical elements in the film, a wink-and-nudge acknowledgement of the strangeness of this movie: of an auteur known for modern gangster films leaping back to the samurai era?

We may never have the answers to these questions, but that doesn't mean we have to stop thinking about everyone's favorite blind swordsman. Viewers who get their first taste this week have plenty more to sample, as two fine home video companies are busy releasing as many of his old adventures as the market will bear: Home Vision, whose candy-colored Zatoichi DVDs practically leap off the shelves, will next week release installments 17, 18, and 19 of the hero's long-running theatrical series. AnimEigo has just completed their own series of Zatocinema, with seven titles, including Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman and Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, starring the legendary Toshiro Mifune. It's a good time to be a fan of this particular sword-slinging masseur, whether Miramax is on the ball or not. •

By John DeFore


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