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Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman

dir: Takeshi Kitano
[img_assist|nid=1017|title=Oh Takeshi, is there nothing you can't do|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=299|height=406]
Do you remember the 80s? More importantly, before you get all
nostalgic tripping down memory lane remembering ra-ra skirts and dumb
haircuts that seem to be making a comeback, do you recall that classic
of the cinema called Blind Fury? It starred one of the undisputed
kings of the 80s; the multi-talented, extraordinary auteur Rutger
Hauer. He brilliantly played the part of a blind guy who could fuck
shit up old school with a sword. No-one could stand against him, but
then he would still confuse alligators with dogs due to his being
differently visually-abled. Blinded in 'Nam, if I'm not mistaken,
fighting for Truth, Justice and the Iraqi Way.

He didn't let his blindness mess up his life. He still got to be a
bad-ass, make stupid jokes and get laid. In fact he gets to lead a
better life than most of us schmucks. It's enough to make you want to
blind yourself in a rage just so that you too can sample the sublime
delights of what being blind must truly be like.

If you remember it, then you'd see what a shameless rip-off of Blind
Fury and Rutger Hauer this here Takeshi film is. It's an outrage,
without question. Despite not being dead I'm sure than Rutger should
be spinning in his grave. Perhaps he needs to be killed and put in a
grave just so he can spin in it. Perhaps that's going a bit far.

Kitano, who wrote, directed, starred and probably did the catering for
this film as well, even dyes his hair blonde so he can match the
rugged good looks of Rutger Hauer in that earlier film. It's both
shameful and shameless. And whilst I wonder how being full of shame
and being totally without shame are equivalent condemnations in the
same context, you'd think that Takeshi could come up with something of
his own.

Okay, maybe I'm not being entirely honest. It's possible that
Takeshi's film is another in a long line of movies detailing the
adventures of the popular Japanese fictional character of Zatoichi (I
think there's been over 60000 movies made in the series, each more
magical than the last), and that the 1989 Philip Noyce actioner
starring Rutger was a Hollywood appropriation. It's possible but I
don't want to give anything away.

'Beat' Takeshi, as he is known to his countrymen has made a stack of
films. Most of them have been exceedingly blood-spattered affairs
where explosive violence punctuates otherwise tranquil scenes. Hana-bi
(Fireworks) is probably the most successful, critically and
artistically, of his films thus far, but that hasn't stopped him from
making more films. For a guy with literally one facial
expression it's amazing that he's come so far and become one of
Japan's best contemporary actors and directors.

The 'acting' bit is probably debatable, but he is a phenomenon all the
same. A motorcycle accident that paralysed most of his face and left
him with facial tics hasn't stopped him from becoming not only a
decent director and popular actor, but bizarrely enough one of the
most popular television personalities in Japanese society.

It means I guess that he can pretty much make whatever the hell he
wants, and people either flock or stay away in droves, it matters not.
And though many of his films seem to be a repetition of the same
themes and in some cases pretty much the same scenes, he's managed to
create a diverse body of work behind him. Even his detractors can't
say that this (Zatoichi) is the same crap as he usually does.

Because it's not. Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn't at the same
time? It does have violence in it, since setting it in samurai times
with people wandering about with swords is just begging for a bunch of
amputations. But if anything, I would describe this film as a comedy.
In a bizarre sense, I'd describe it as a weird rural / peasant musical
comedy that has gouts of CGI blood liberally splashed across its
duration.

Something for everyone, surely. For the whole family, indeed.

It's a strange amalgam, not one that I am entirely sure works for the
film's duration. But it did entertain me, and it did distract me from
base horrific pointlessness of human existence for a couple of hours.
And that is after all, I was recently chastised to appreciate, the
point of movies in the first place.

We are introduced to our blind hero in a scene where a bunch of people
make the mistake of underestimating a blind man. As anyone who's ever
tried to steal money from a blind busker knows, you should not really
fuck with blind people. It's their dogs, you see. They train them with
these special commands at the Institute of the Blind which essentially
translates to 'Rip the nuts off the fucker that stole the hat with the
money in it'.

You're wondering how I would know something like that, and I'll be
damned if I elaborate. Actually, I'm pretty much damned (but not of
course The Damned, though I keep trying) regardless of what I do, so
it doesn't really matter. All the same, Zatoichi manages to not only
hurt a bunch of people who want to do him harm, but quite casually
kills them. The fights are explosive, well-choreographed but nothing
like what audiences are starting to except after Crouching Tiger and
the Matrix films. They are, ironically, somewhat closer to what I
expect actual fights between samurai were probably like back in ye
olden says. Two skilled swordsmen stare lovingly into each other's
eyes, they have a go at each other; the first one that is a fraction
off gets their head handed to them on the tip of a katana. All this
should happen within seconds.

Of course there are still enough sword obsessed geeks on this
newsgroup (how's that for being optimistic) who could tell me that I'm
wrong. It certainly, as I kept telling the judge at the Family Court,
wouldn't be the first time. Still, there is none of the wire-work or
fifteen minute slashfests one has come to expect. Zatoichi's legendary
skill comes from the acuteness of his senses, the accuracy of his
hearing and his heroic abilities with the sword.

He's also a decent sort of chap. He's happy to kill someone for
looking at him funny (presumably), but he is not averse to helping the
helpless, and being kind to puppies and such. He's something of a
Japanese Robin Hood in storytelling, as far as I can tell, though
there is bugger-all giving of money to anyone, rich, poor or otherwise
that I could see.

What follows is an unnaturally complicated story about the tensions
within a small village where three distinct rival gangs regularly
brutalise the various peasants and compete for overall dominance.
Considering how dirt poor the dirt poor peasants are, you wonder why
they bother. Of course without such tensions you'd have no story and
thus no way of having a hero justifiably or otherwise lop people
heads, arms and legs off.

As well thrown into all of this are two character's mysterious mission
of revenge upon one of the clans, and Zatoichi's own curious
objectives. Another plot line concerns the story of a decent but
mercenary ronin samurai and his girlfriend / wife / slut who's
coughing up blood all the time. To make it sound plot driven would be
disingenuous, since much of the time much of what happens on screen
has little to do with plot. It has more to do with Zatoichi cracking
us up with his attempts at slapstick, more often gory humour, and
basically undercutting audience expectations by taking scenes into
slightly different directions than what you would expect.

The other elements refer to the mundane aspects of the lives of the
peasantry. Despite being at the mercy of the samurai class and
bandits, who are pretty much one and the same thing, the peasants go
about their daily routines, finding joy and a syncopated rhythm in
their eternal tasks. In several scenes people unintentionally join
into the equivalent of musical routines without even knowing about it,
culminating in the movie's joyous, celebratory climax. I'll admit it's
pretty weird to gaijin eyes (gaijin being those of us heathens not
blessed enough to be from the Floating World of $20 bottles of beer,
vending machines with girl's panties in them and whale sushi), and if
you're in a bemused mood you're probably going to think it's the
dumbest thing since Australian Idol. Gee, I'm really overselling it
now.

I've recently been watching a lot of the old Kurosawa flicks on DVD,
ones like Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjuro and Hidden Fortress, so I'm
kind of in the right frame of mind for these kinds of movies. I'm
possibly not the most objective about something in this genre, but all
the same I have a modicum of experience with these films, enough to
form some sort of considered opinion without being blind to their
flaws. Kurosawa was indeed a cinematic master, and this film here
doesn't come close, but it comes close enough to remind me why I like
Kurosawa's films.

The film has a bizarre twist towards the end, one of almost M. Night
Shyamalanian proportions. I don't know if it conforms with the
original stories, or whether it's Kitano's addition to the ouvre. I expect most
audience members will meet the preceedings with a profound sense of
'Eh'. I didn't 'get' it, and it seemed pretty gimmicky to me. But what
the hell do I know, I'm not even Japanese.

There is more emphasis on humour than characterisation, the violence
is extreme but quite often played for laughs. Some of the plot lines
go nowhere, and others seem to have too much time spent on them. There
are more characters than you can reliably keep track of, and it feels
long for two hours. All the same I enjoyed the film on a few levels,
but I wouldn't sell a kidney in order to be able to afford a ticket if
I was you. And frankly if I was you I'd be doing something more
valuable with my time than reading one of my reviews. You could be
masturbating, or trimming your nose hair, or plotting to take over a
Pacific Island nation with a starter pistol and blankets and beads
covered with the kinds of diseases that used to decimate indigenous
populations. Or alternatively you could be out watching a reasonably
enjoyable flick that has samurais cutting people up into man size,
snack size and bite size portions. But don't go expecting
Enlightenment, because that's just silly.

8 human limbs expertly hacked off by a blind guy out of 10

--
'Why don't you try out this new sword on this blind beggar who's
walking down the road?' - another stupid decision made by an
extraneous character in Zatoichi

Rating: