Dir: Takeshi Kitano
Star: Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano, Michiyo Okusu, Yui Natsukawa

Even with a period setting, radically different to most of Kitano's other movies, this is still easily recognisable as his work. It's most obvious in the bursts of hyperviolence, punctuating more thoughful sequences - a combination also found in his modern gangster films. Zatoichi is a blind swordsman, the hero of a lengthy series of 60's and 70's films in Japan, perhaps the cultural equivalent of, oh, James Bond. So while this is an ambitious project, there's no shortage of memorable moments, even for someone like me who hasn't seen the originals. Not the least being a bizarre musical number which ends the film. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In a town controlled by ruthless mobsters, Zatoichi (Kitano) meets a peasant woman, her nephew, and two siblings out for revenge on their family's murderers. Actually, in screen time, the siblings beat Zatoichi, and so may the lone wolf bodyguard (Asano), hired by the opposition - you certainly see more of their motivations. Relegating Zatoichi to a supporting role is a waste of Kitano's charisma, and the film drifts off too much, despite obvious mayhem opportunities. Though the body-count remains large, and the blood-spray arterial (if largely CGI, and not always convincing), they really aren't the point. I'm not sure precisely what is, perhaps, save one glorious, incredibly cool moment when it looks like Kitano has thrown the entire Zatoichi mythos out - he later backtracks, unfortunately - but if you appreciate the offbeat, you'll like this blend of comedy, drama, gore and tapdance.

May 2004

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