ZATOICHIBEAT TAKESHI BEATDOWN | May 24, 2004
Opens in US theatres on July 23rd
To say that Zatoichi is one of cinema’s all time most iconic anti heroes would be an understatement. The tale of the blind, gambling masseur turned expert swordsman has spawned more sequels than Bond and generated countless imitators ranging from Marvel Comic’s cult hero, Daredevil, to Phillip Noyce’s Zatoichi remake, Blind Fury. His tale is at once both delightfully absurd and immensely entertaining, making it is no surprise that Zatoichi was bound to grace the big screen once again.
Having passed away in 1997, Shintaro Katsu, the star of the previous 26 Zatoichi installments, left an incredible legacy which most Zatoichi-hopefuls could never hope to match up. But Takeshi Kitano, writer, director, and star of this 27th installment, is no average joe. A renaissance man in every sense of the word, Kitano has seen fit to both revitalize, retrofit, and re-introduce the series to a brand new generation of fans.
The story itself is pretty straightforward, with all the classic elements present and accounted for. Ichi ambles into a town whose inhabitants are troubled by exceedingly ruthless mobsters. Settling in, he works out a deal trading massages for shelter, and passes his time with drink and gambling in the local hotspots. Gennosuke Hattori (Tadanobu Asano of Ichi the Killer), a ronin seeking work as a bodyguard (yojimbo) in order to pay for treatment of his ailing wife, also enters the town, and finds employment with the local “mafia.” Lastly, the third ingredient in this explosive mix arrives in the form of two sibling “Geisha,” O-Kinu (Kitano Regular Yuuko Daike) and O-Sei (newcomer Daigorô Tachibana) seeking retribution for the decade old murder of their family by order of the town's new mob boss. As convention would have it, the town is far too small for these players to co-exist. Ichi fosters friendships with some, makes enemies of many others, and inadvertently sets himself on the path of cleaning up the town with his lightning fast swordsmanship.
Though familiar, Kitano understands that he must stay true to the elements that made the original films so well loved, while resisting the common urge to merely rework elements of what made the old films so popular. With that in mind, the updates may seem slight at first. Zatoichi’s new haircolor is a blazing white-blonde. His sword, now aided by the latest in cgi-gore effects, cuts through his enemies, letting fly limbs and arterial spray without any cutaways. But by looking deeper you will also notice Kitano’s wit and insight are in full effect. Delighting in the humour found in the unexpected, Kitano treats us to some truly inspired sequences. One of my personal favourites involves workers in a field, whose hammering and plowing sync up with the beats of the musical score, effectively communicating the hyper-aural world Zatoichi inhabits.
But it’s not all about Kitano. We also have some excellent performances by Asano, Daike and Tachibana. The film itself is beautifully shot using a refreshingly muted color pallet, free of the overpowering filters that plague so many American films. The musical score is both playful and peppy, adding necessary mood to select scenes, but never once becoming a distraction. The swordfights themselves are lightning fast, exemplifying to the fact that a truly skilled swordsman would not waste time felling his opponent with useless flashy moves.
Technically released in 2003, this is one of the best films to hit American screens all year. While Zatoichi’s seemingly impish delight in trickery, snap temper, and appetite for trouble seem custom fit for the “Beat”, the Zatoichi he creates is entirely his own. Complete with a new blonde do, gorgeous cinematography, and trademark Kitano humor, this Zatoichi is an absolute joy to behold.