Saturday, July 14, 2007

Film Review--The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003)

Zatoichi is a simple man. Most days, he’s just your everyday wandering blind masseuse. But when trouble finds him (and it tends to), he’s a master swordsman ready to fight for whatever cause presents itself. This has been the subject of some twenty five movies since 1962, and it’s a great gimmick. Even at its worst, say in 1990’s Rutger Hauer classic, Blind Fury, it still makes for a lot of fun. The master of Japanese action, Takeshi Kitano’s stab at the formula is smart and funny, with gratuitous violence, just like a Zatoichi movie should be. Every Kitano movie I see makes me want to see more. He is consistently enjoyable in his deconstructions of standardized genres.

In this installment, Zatoichi (played by Kitano, who also directed, wrote and edited the film) wanders into town to find the villagers plagued by a pair of corrupt and greedy gangs. The thugs take his defense lightly, which proves to be fatal when the “masseuse” pulls a sword from his cane and strikes with blazing speed and razor precision. Along the way, he comes along a pair of geisha twins who, after unsuccessfully trying to kill him, ask his help to avenge the murder of their parents. Zatoichi dispatches increasingly tough opponents leading to the final confrontation with a newly hired, and newly married, assassin who is no slouch with a blade himself. Not the most original plot, to be sure but, as with Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, there is a lot of freedom to move with the details. Kitano uses the character as a springboard for a smart, stylish and tongue-in-cheek story that doesn’t reinvent the genre, but has a lot of fun with the conventions inherent in the series.

Kitano is simply a great hero. I haven’t seen a lot of his work outside the samurai or yakuza genres, but he’s perfect in these roles. He is loveable and charismatic as he relishes in killing scores and scores of people. He’s the rare cases of action heroes who can add acting skill to the mayhem and it lends believability that makes people like Keanu Reeves fall far short. Also of note is the great performance of Guadalcanal Taka. He plays the geisha twin who keeps a big secret. He’s brilliant in the role and the most memorable, fun performance in the movie. Everybody’s great, relishing in the bloody madness the whole time.

To me, though, the use of blood is the most interesting part of the movie. All of the bloodshed is done digitally. Ordinarily, I hate computer effects, but it works really well here. There are a couple of instances where the digitization is blatant and jarring, but it is mostly seamless. More importantly, all of these pictures are full of spraying blood and nothing is different here. What is different is that the lack of need for a hose or a barrel to contain the gore. It allows for Kitano’s remarkably kinetic editing style to shine through and gives cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima the freedom to shoot from crazy angles without the restraint of the effects.