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ZATOICHI

(Japan 2003) 

(aka) The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi

Directed by Takeshi Kitano Produced by Masayuki Mori, Tsunehisa Saito Action by Takeshi Kitano, Tatsumi Nikamoto

Starring: Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano, Michiyo Yasuda, Taka Guadalcanal, Diagoro Tachibana, Yuko Daike, Yui Natsukawa, Kohji Miura

Reviewing: Artificial Eye UK DVD Release

Genres: Chanbara / Drama / Comedy

Rating - 4 / 5

DVD Synopsis: Cult filmmaker Takeshi Kitano's ('Hana-Bi', 'Violent Cop') dazzling new film is a thrilling tale of swordplay and adventure set in 19th Century Japan. Zatoichi (“Beat” Takeshi) is a blind wanderer whose humble facade disguises his prodigious skills as a master swordsman, gifted with a lightning fast draw and strokes of breathtaking precision. Arriving in a remote mountain town, he finds its people terrorised by the ruthless Ginzo gang and their mighty samurai ronin Hattori (Tadanobu Asano), who mercilessly dispose of all who get in their way. With his legendary cane sword at his side, Zatoichi's path is destined for many violent confrontations... Kitano's hugely entertaining box office hit, packed with riotous humour and thrillingly choreographed action scenes, has enthralled and amazed critics and audiences the world over.

Views: Takeshi Kitano's wonderful re-imagining of Zatoichi begins with the blind masseur arriving at a small town that is under the control of many warring gangs, with the Ginzo gang being the most ruthless. He soon finds refuge with a lone widow at a local farm after helping to carry her basket, and helps out where he can to pay for his keep. As other characters arrive in town, such as vengeful ronin Hattori, and two young geisha's (one of which is a boy) with their own agenda, Zatoichi finds himself embroiled among the affairs of the locals and steps up to save them from the torment and abuse of the Ginzo!

The legacy of the blind swordsman continues strong with 'Beat' Takeshi delivering one of his most exciting and accomplished films as a director and star. A hundred miles from the usual situations and roles we are used to seeing him in, the popular Japanese star combines elements of an Akira Kurasawa classic with a touch of art-house decadence, combined with some genuinely witty humour, and enough violent swordplay that doesn't take away from its mature storyline. Aside from some strong direction, Kitano fits the role of Zatoichi extremely well, delivering a believable-yet-subdued performance until he is required to come to life with some bloody action. I had only ever seen him in a similar setting when I watched the fantastic Gohatto a few years before, so it was refreshing in some way to see him back in this era. But although Zatoichi proved to be a big hit for the film-maker as well as the winner of many awards, and he has been going strong ever since, I personally haven't seen much more of Takeshi since – except for his role in Takashi Miike's ultra-wild Izo the following year and in the Hollywood produced, live-action adaptation of Ghost In The Shell in 2017...

Although it was written, directed, edited by, and even choreographed by Kitano himself, he never really allows the whole story to focus completely on the titular character, adding strength to the supporting cast that helps its audience get a little more invested in them. This includes the travelling geisha couple – a brother and sister act who were orphaned by the Ginzo gang and stage performances for members of the thugs so that they can kill, rob, and exact revenge on them. To save his sister from any sexual advances, brother Osei opts to dress up as the dancing geisha, something he does quite convincingly due to his feminine features, which allows Okinu to focus on the music and surprise attacks. Incidently, this would be actor Diagoro Tachibana's one-and-only role to date (as Osei), yet does a great job in his performance with the slightly older Yuko Daike returning to work with Kitano after her debut in his 1996 film, Kids Return, as well as starring with him in Hana-Bi and Dolls. Yuko would also appear in the Ju-On (The Grudge) movies, before going onto star in a host of popular television shows. The great Taka Guadalcanal also returns to join Kitano once again as Shinkichi, Zatoichi's new friend and gambling partner who helps bring a lot of laughs to the table. Having made his feature film debut in Takeshi's very own, Boiling Point, Taka would return for the directors comedy film Getting Any?, before making it a hat-trick almost a decade later with his role here. Michiyo Yasuda, who started her acting career in the mid 60s, stars as farming widow Aunt Oume and actually appeared in one of the original Zatoichi films just a few years later called Zatoichi's Pilgrimage. Starring in almost 70 titles to date, Yasuda starred in many great titles over the decades including the fantastic, Lone Wolf & Cub: Baby Cart In The Land Of Demons. And last, but definitely not least, is the great Tadanobu Asano – star of Ichi The Killer, the MCU's Thor Trilogy, Tokyo Zombie, Battleship, and the latest adaptation of Mortal Kombat where he plays Lord Raiden. In Zatoichi, Asano plays skilled swordsman for hire, Hattori – a man who joins the Ginzo gang to try and raise some money to help his dying wife. As per usual, he's a great addition to an already great cast who gets in on the action a number of times, as well as getting to face-off against Zatoichi himself.

While it often comes across as a slice of classic 1960s Japanese cinema, the cinematography is beautifully handled by Katsumi Yanagijima, a popular DOP who worked with Takeshi Kitano on many titles such as A Scene At The Sea, Sonatine, Kids Return, Dolls, and many more. On top of that, he was the eye behind hit movies such as Battle Royale, Samurai Resurrection, The Grudge 2, Shutter, Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler, and then some. Overall, Katsumi manages to deliver some incredibly beautiful scenes throughout backed by a wonderful score from Keiichi Suzuki, composer of Spiral, the gorgeous anime feature Tokyo Godfathers, and Kitano's The Outrage and its sequel, Beyond Outrage. In fact, music is a vital piece of this film for the director as he combines natural movements, noises, and beats with random scenes of farmers dancing in the fields. It all brings the film to a close with a highly enjoyable, and very memorable, dance sequence that brings in the majority of the cast members (except for the villains and Zatoichi) in a finale that was choreographed by famed Japanese tap-dancing troupe, The Stripes. It leaves viewers with a smile of their faces as the credits come in and, for me, is a great ending to a fantastic film. While many have complained about the use of CGI when it comes to the blood splatter and severed limbs, I personally didn't find it too distracting and got over it pretty quick!

Overall: A worthy reboot of a classic legacy, Zatoichi makes for a fun watch with great performances all round, neat action, good humour, and so much more!

DVD Extras: Making of Documentary, Trailers, Filmography, Gallery