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Original Title:

Japan 2003

Chambara, Action, Drama

Takeshi Kitano

Takeshi "Beat" Kitano
Tadanobu Asano
Gadarukanaru Taka
Michiyo Ookusu
Daigoro Tachibana
Yuuko Daike
Yui Natsukawa
Akira Emoto
Ittoku Kishibe
Saburo Ishikura
Ben Hiura
Kohji Miura
Ron II

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Story: A blind wandering masseur (Takeshi "Beat" Kitano) comes to a village, which is tyrannized by a group of thieves. The masseur helps an old lady carrying the reaping home and out of gratitude is given shelter at the lady's home for the next few days. With the nephew of the old lady, Shinkichi (Gadarukanaru Taka), he spends his time at a gambling place, and thus overhears that a new thief organization is overpowering the old one in town and is killing off all rivals as well as bosses.
The thieves gain even more power when they hire a dishonorable samurai, ronin Hattori Genosuke (Tadanobu Asano), who is willing to do anything for money that he needs to get a cure for his ill wife. Even though the blind masseur has nothing to do with all of these developments, he always lends the farmers a helping hand, which awakens the wrath of the thieves' organization.
However, it seems as if not only the masseur has some issue with the thieves, but also the two geishas Seitaro (Daigoro Tachibana) and Okinu (Yuuko Daike), who believe that the thieves' leader is no one else than the man they want to take revenge on for years already. Nonetheless, in the end it is up to the masseur/Zatoichi to bring peace to the village once again.

Review: "Zatoichi" is Takeshi Kitano's revival of a movie series that spanned decades until the 80s. A story about a blind samurai, who wanders the country helping poor people to rid themselves of the evil reign of tyrannizing oppressors. Why of all people Kitano had to undertake the project of a modern chambara-movie is in fact odd, but interestingly he manages to create an exceptional film, that is very light-hearted and entertaining for a Takeshi Kitano-work. I can recall very clearly that for whatever reasons, the movie even did get quite some publicity here in Germany, which means that I even had the pleasure to enjoy "Zatoichi" at a cinema. Back then my enthusiasm for Asian cinema wasn't fully awakened yet, and I knew only little about Kitano and his other works, but I already knew that this was a truely outstanding and well-done movie.

As it is often the case with Takeshi Kitano ("Sonatine", "Hana-bi") the pacing of his work is rather slow. But in "Zatoichi" this doesn't mean that you have to fear falling asleep out of boredom, instead we simply get some more tranquil moments, during which you will get enchanted by the atmosphere and the nice pictures. Especially at the beginning when we arrive at the village and get to know the villagers this is the case very apparently. Kitano, who isn't just responsible for the directing, script and editing, but also stands as the movie's main protagonist, shapes his work a lot more sympathetic and humorous than his other works. Yet, this doesn't mean that there aren't some scenes that are quite dark and brutal. Kitano successfully mixes different genres and always manages not to fall into a certain category, even though his main goal might have been to create a chambara-film. Of course, this also means that there is some sword fighting, but these fights are really quick most of the time. And for most sword fighting fans they will simply be over too soon.

While we are at the topic of sword fights, this also brings us to maybe the movie's biggest flaw. Kitano made it pretty clear that he wanted the special effects guys to integrate an incredible lavishly use of blood, which in the end isn't convincing at all, as the blood looks too artificial. Since it is completely CGI-animated it sprays around in truely ridiculous fashion and is only visible on the victims' bodies after the next cut. This also applies to some of the swords that pierce through many an opponent and always look distinguishably CGI-animated because of the "flickering". Kitano's intention actually was to reduce the harsh violence in the film by making the blood look beautified and artificial, but it remains questionable if anyone really appreciates his effort.
As already said, the fight sequences don't last too long, and thus even the finale is simply too unspectacular. Somehow we miss the feeling of a true showdown. The only scene, that is worth remembering is the one in which Zatoichi faces a group of thugs in pouring rain.

Kitano himself takes up the sword and since his movements always look pretty fast - thanks to good editing and the right camera angle - you can't make out the he isn't really familiar with how to use such a weapon. Tadanobu Asano, on the other hand, who gives a great performance as the villian, can fight through many enemies in a very convincing manner and proves to be quite skilled. Asano ("Ichi The Killer", "Last Life in the Universe") is without a doubt Japan's most sought-after actor and he has a noticeable disposition of depicting complex and mentally ill people. Here, he plays a dishonoured samurai, who only cares about the well-being of his wife and even kills for it without batting an eye. Thus, he doesn't truely depict a villian in the conventional use of the word, and that's just what makes him so fascinating.
Also noteable, even though it may be a bit frustrating for some, is that Zatoichi is everything but the plot's center. "Zatoichi" fully builds on its supporting characters.
You don't need to look for a story aside from that. The resolving is unspectacular and predictable. The masseur always remains intangible in a way, but is a man of honour in his own right. In fact, he is just the one who keeps the different story threads of all the supporting characters together, and eventually dissolves them. He has no other task than this.

Another interesting fact is that Kitano himself described his character as a villian in an interview, which I can more or less approve. Somethimes he is very unyielding in his actions, but at other times he also shows a noticeable sense for honor.
The director wraps up his story with nice pictures and also bestows a good portion of deadpan humor upon some scenes. Kitano himself may not talk that much in the film, but nevertheless manages to give his character the charisma and integrity he needs to be accepted as the main protagonist by the viewer. It's not that hard to get along with the slow pacing, especially not if you compare it to that of Kitano's other works. Only during the many flashbacks you have to be careful, as you might miss some of them since they are always implemented somewhat unpredictable and without a warning, which may confuse some of the audience.
The dancing sequence at the end, which is choreographed by "The Stripes" who can also be seen throughout the movie on several occasions, and which have something "Stomp"-like to it, did get quite some negative criticism. Still, the scenes somehow just fit into the movie, if you have finally come aware of the fact that "Zatoichi" surely doesn't want to take itself too serious.

The music by Keiichi Suzuki also plays a major part in "Zatoichi". It is different and maybe even isn't easy to get used to at first, yet soon manages to win over the heart of the audience, especially since it is very prominent. This becomes really apparent during the scene on the field, when the farmers start to "stomp" to the rhythm of the music.
What's making the film work out so well eventually, is that Kitano refrains from working in unnecessary profound symbolism or metaphers. The characters he has written are all very three-dimensional and at the end of the movie we truely believe to know them a bit. But apart from that there isn't anything profound in the story. This surely makes "Zatoichi" Kitano's most commercial film to date, but despite some appealing pictures and a new twist to the chambara genre the movie still lacks something. The fights are too short, the blood looks just too ridiculous (which really becomes annoying with time) and we simply miss a compelling main story thread. Which is why I once again can't give Kitano's movie a better rating than usual...
Nevertheless, chambara- and Kitano-fans alike really should watch "Zatoichi", as it can score with its atmosphere, great actors and a genuine balancing act between bloody-serious and lightheartedly-entertaining.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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