Zatoichi (Japan 2003)

Rating: ***
Review Date:5/9/04
Director: Kitano "Beat" Takeshi
Cast: Kitano Takeshi, Tadanobu Asano, Yuko Daike

An interesting retelling of Shintaro Katsu's classic "Zatoichi" character from actor/director Kitano Takeshi. A poor village is being exploited by the nasty Tachibana gang when three different groups of people show up at the same time: a skilled ronin with an ailing wife, a pair of travelling geisha, and Zatoichi, the blind swordsman. This sets a number of events into motion that can only be resolved by bloodshed. The ronin (Tadanobu Asano) goes to work as a bodyguard for the evil boss Ginzo in order to raise money to care for his wife, the geisha (including pretty Yuko Daike) are trying to track down their family's killers, and Zatoichi (Kitano Takeshi) just stirs up trouble wherever he goes. As a long time Zatoichi fan, the surprise twist ending left a bad taste in my mouth, but it doesn't really derail the story. This is a retelling afterall, not a remake.

The film looks great and the sound design is excellent. The cinematography is really nice, and all of the colors are soft and subdued - definitely a contrast to what Hollywood is doing these days. Kitano Takeshi does an excellent job as Zatoichi, capturing the intensity, sensitivity, and humility of Katsu's original character, but he doesn't play the fool as Katsu often did. The sword fighting is pretty good, but spoiled by an overabundance of digital effects. It's not that the digital swords and blood don't look realistic, but you can definitely tell that things don't match up correctly. In particular, the blood is really distracting because it doesn't react with anything and tends to evaporate in thin air. It would be far more satisfying if the blood actually sprayed onto people and surroundings instead of just disappearing. Still, the technology allows for some pretty spectacular slayings. While not as outrageously violent as the samurai films from the 1970's, there are a number of shockingly brutal scenes that will please anyone who's a fan of the genre. This outing isn't as tragic and melodramatic as the original Zatoichi films, and actually ends on a happy note. Speaking of the ending, the climax of the film is a bizarre and completely inexplicable (but excellently staged) tap dance number. Very cool, but very out of place. Just what is going on here? A nice production that fans of Zatoichi, samurai films, and Japanese cinema should look into.