Larry, Curly and Kitano
Beat Takeshi's "Zatoichi" is no ordinary samurai slash-'em-up it features a blind swordsman at the center of a saga with a surprisingly silly side.
By DAVID N. BUTTERWORTH
"The ancient sages said, 'Do not despise the snake for having no horns, for who is to say it will not become a dragon? So may one just man become an army.'"
So pondered the introduction to "The Water Margin," a short-lived Japanese television series from the mid-Seventies that cult Japanese director Takeshi Kitano ("Brother," "Fireworks," "Sonatine") seems to be paying direct homage to with his latest film, "Zat™ichi" (or "The Blind Swordsman: Zat™ichi," as it's currently circulating).
|Written and directed by: Takeshi Kitano.|
Adapted from novels by: Kan Shimozawa.
Cast: Takeshi Kitano, Michiyo Ookusu, Gadarukanaru Taka, Daigor™ Tachibana, Yuuko Daike, Tadanobu Asano, Yui Natsukawa, Ittoku Kishibe, Saburo Ishikura, Akira Emoto, Ben Hiura, Kohji Miura.
Cinematography: Katsumi Yanagishima.
Edited by: Takeshi Kitano, Yoshinori Oota.
In Japanese with English subtitles.
Related links: Official site | Japanese site | All of David N. Butterworth's reviews at Rotten Tomatoes
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Festival Internacional de Cine Contemporaneo|
The character of Zat™ichi has permeated Japanese cinema for the past 40 years via a vast assortment of some 20-odd films. But none as odd as this one!
Part Three Stooges, part "Seven Samurai," Zat™ichi is the film Quentin Tarantino tried to realize with the one-two sucker punch of Kill Bill. Kitano's film, while not without its flaws, reaches a level that Tarantino's does not. For all its anonymous bloodletting and martial-arts mayhem, there's an innocence and surprising silliness to it, a goofy charm that flows from its colorful characters to its offbeat storyline to its syncopated score. Whereas Tarantino focused on style in his first chapter and character in volume two, with neither film feeling close to complete, director Kitano and star Beat Takeshi (one and the same person, incidentally) successfully manage to incorporate both elements in the one motion picture.
In 19th-century rural Japan, a blind masseur cum Samurai swordsman, a pair of vengeful geishas, a down-on-his-luck gambler, and a skilled ronin for hire, cross paths and swords in a film that draws its inspiration more from Larry, Curly, and Moe's high jinks than any direct reference to Akira Kurosawa.|
At the local sake hut, skilled swordsman Hattori offers his services to a local crime boss, whose gang members delight in roughing up the locals for daily protection money. Meanwhile two young Geishas search for the men that massacred their family, and in the gambling parlor Zat™ichi's skill at dice attracts the amity of Shinkichi, who learns you have a better chance of beating the odds if you listen rather than look.
"Some masseur is tearing apart the gambling house!" a frightened goon informs Boss Ogi after Zat™ichi accuses the proprietor of cheating. It's one of many scenes "rated R for strong stylized bloody violence." With cane-sword drawn in retaliation, the field of battle explodes into gushing arteries of blood (think Monty Python's Black Knight) gory but only fleetingly graphic bursts of computer-generated red that conclude as quickly as they begin.|
The film is episodic in its construct and Kitano (the director) can be accused of letting some of the quieter scenes run on longer than necessary (the geisha dance/flashback sequence being the most turgid). But as a performer he's much more centered. White-haired and contemplative, Beat Takeshi's Zat™ichi is the perfect antihero: calm and deadpan, often chuckling at some unspoken in-joke; quick and efficient when angered. The film's humor comes as a complete surprise, bordering on slapstick, especially in scenes featuring an idiot Samurai wannabe, Shinkichi teaching three youths the art of Kendo, or field workers matching the rhythms of the film's perky score. Zat™ichi even concludes on the most bizarre note possible, with the entire cast performing a spurious and comically choreographed tap dance number!
While not for all tastes, Zat™ichi is a refreshing change of pace from your standard action fare, one that uniquely marries killer violence with whimsy, farce, and tender sentimentality. Let the Beat go on!
|AUGUST 24, 2004|
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