by Jerome de Groot
This DVD is available for purchase at HKFlix.com.
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A blind masseur wanders the Japanese countryside, dispensing moral justice and wry advice. Takeshi Kitano’s new film takes on a fully-formed character (the sightless swordsman Zatoichi as played by Shintano Katsu is the star of some 26 films from his inception in 1962 to 1989) and numerous samurai clichés, and intertwines them to produce a work that blends humour and wisdom, caricature and profundity. The film is unusual among Kitano’s output for being a period drama. The metaphor of the blind but almost superhumanly alert wanderer gives Kitano a stage to develop issues of identity, loyalty, honour and humour.
Zatoichi finds himself caught up in a series of confrontations between ordinary people and the gangs that prey upon them. He moves through the stories seemingly at random, until his final acts of justice which are intercut with scenes of village rejoicing. Zatoichi appears vulnerable if stubborn, but through a series of bloody encounters we discover that those who underestimate him generally end up dead, such is the speed and deadly accuracy of his sword due to his development of his other senses.
There are vengeance narratives, loyalty stories and the workings through of an archaic but still important code of honour. Particularly impressive is Kitano’s device of flashback to develop back-story and characterisation, and the film attains a complexity and depth due to this technique. Playful and profound, Kitano plays Zatoichi as a blond buffoon—but this is gradually revealed as a disguise, and the samurai is shown to be as sharp as his sword.
The film is extremely bloody, but in an oddly mannered way. Kitano uses stop-motion to great effect to communicate the speed of the lone swordsman. That said, the lack of obvious special effects in the fight scenes give the action a heft and reality. He also plays on Zatoichi’s traditional backhand grip of his sword, working through his mostly blundering enemies with an easy, humble grace. Audiences shocked by Tarantino’s excessive but cartoony violence in Kill Bill Vol. I will discern the roots of his schlock in the spurting arterial blood of Zatoichi’s victims, although the swordplay is less stylised, more visceral despite its ritualistic samurai approach. The period approach gives the piece a factual reality which is offset by the comic, almost fantastical violence and black-and-white morality of the piece.
The film is a fable with blood: light and enjoyable as well as a serious meditation on history and ancestry. As such it gives Kitano the perfect vehicle for crossover success, Crouching Tiger with teeth.
Jerome de Groot is a writer, teacher and filmgoer living in London, England.
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