Film – Zatoichi
Year of release – 2003
Country – Japan
Stars – ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano
Dir. – ‘Beat’ Takehsi Kitano
Hope this post finds you well. Well, it’s time for another entry into our hall of fame that is ‘Martial Arts Movie Madness!!’. If you missed the previous post, you can find it here. For today’s post, we are taking our first foray into Japanese action cinema and specifically the sub genre of ‘Chanbara’. There are many fabulous films from this genre that dates back as far as 1925. They focus on a variety of character, bur perhaps none of them are as well know throughout Japan as Zatoichi, the blind swordsman. With well over 20 film adaptations of this character and his adventures, this 2003 offering had to go some way to tread new ground in his well worn story. Thankfully, this brilliant take is written and directed by one of Japan’s cinema’s heavyweights in ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano. Kitano enthuses his film with a fresh, vibrant vision for the character that pays homage to his roots whilst delivering an enthralling spectacle guaranteed to leave you with a big old cheesy grin on your face!
Zatoichi is a blind wanderer whose humble facade cleverly disguises his prodigious skills as a master swordsman. When he arrives in a remote mountain town in rural Japan during the Tokugawa period, he finds it’s inhabitants being terrorised by the ruthless Ginzo gang who are themselves in the midst of a turf war with two other clans.The Ginzo gang have secured the services of a fearsome Samurai ronin named Hattori (Tadanobo Asano). Hattori has his own reasons for working for the crooked gang, but he doesn’t let that distract him from his job, namely, cutting down anybody who dares to defy the gang. As Zatoichi befriends a local woman, her lazy nephew, and two young women with a shared secret and revenge on their minds, he becomes their defacto protector. This puts him on a collision course with the Ginzo gang and the formidable Hattori. As the limbs fly and bodies pile up, Zatoichi and the Ginzo gang engage in a deadly game of cat and mouse which will leave only the courageous standing.
From it’s brilliantly staged opening to it’s bloody climax, ‘Zatoichi’ is a film that oozes style. As I mentioned, Director and Star Kitano has gone to great lengths to stamp his own unique style on the character and his adaptation. The use of music and choreographed dance numbers (yes, I said dance numbers but stick with me) actually elevate the whole film beyond the expected genre tropes. The choreography, provided by The Stripes, is full of fun and energy but remarkably, it never distracts from the overall viewing experience. Kitano is well know throughout Japan for his comedy routines, and here, he enthuses the film with as many sight gags and slapstick humour moments as he possibly can get get away in a ‘Chanbara’. Check out one particular scene where the good for nothing Shinkichi (Guadalcanal Taka) tries to ape Zatoichi’s uncanny skill of knowing what number the dice will land on in the local gambling house, and fails painfully!
The martial arts choreography in this movie is stunning, blades swirl and slice in frightening arcs of death, and though the CG blood effects have not aged well, don’t let that discourage you from some great cinematography by Katsumi Yanagishima, who manages to capture every clash and dismemberment in brutal, beautiful detail.
Kitano’s script is light and to the point, Every character feels like a living breathing person, thanks to the great work of the actors. Kitano himself is outstanding as our hero, letting his gruff chuckles and fixed grimace tell you as much about the character as his words. Asano is a great co-lead, his tragic story arc could easily come off as mawkish and cliche, but the calm poise with which he allows Hattori to glide through the film adds an extra layer of authenticity that is sadly lacking from other films released in that year (i’m looking at you The Last Samurai). The story unfolds partly through flashback, but again, it is handled so well, it never feels ‘gimicky’. It actually adds to your understanding of the story and the character motivations. In particular, the two women’s story benefits hugely from this without removing you from the whole story.
This film has managed to do something quite unique, in the sense that it has managed to marry together thrilling swordplay, crime drama, slapstick humour and a gentle nod to a simpler time with consummate ease and skill. It rightfully belongs not only among the choices for Martial Arts Movie Madness, but among any list of the greatest Martial Arts films of all time. It’s courage in sticking by it’s stylistic choices and principles ensure that anyone watching this movie will have a unique and truly unforgettable experience.
If you want to check this film out (and I highly recommend that you do!) You can find it available on sale at Amazon and most other good retailers.
Right, that’s your lot for today, be back with more Martial Arts Movie Madness soon!