The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi

2003, Movie, R, 116 mins


One-man band Takeshi Kitano's first period film is a quirky take on the popular character Zatoichi, a sightless swordsman who wanders Edo-period Japan like a cross between comic-book hero Daredevil and TV-detective Columbo, a shuffling Robin Hood who always seems three steps behind the bad guys until he abruptly reduces a mob of truculent samurai to fish food. Itinerant masseur Zatoichi (Kitano) helps middle-aged O-Ume (Michiyo Ookusu) carry her vegetables from the market, and in return she offers him a place to stay. O-Ume confides that for the last decade the town has been run by the warring gangs of Boss Funahachi (Koji Koike) and Boss Ogi (Saburo Ishikura), but in recent months their increasing demands have pushed the villagers to the brink of despair. O-Ume also frets over her feckless nephew, Shinkichi (Guadalcanal Taka), who pours his time and money into gambling at Ginzo's (Ittoku Kishibe) betting parlor. Zatoichi helps Shinkichi win at dice and Shinkichi suggests they celebrate by hiring glamorous geisha sisters O-kinu (Yuko Daike) and O-sei Naruto (Daigoro Tachibana), recent arrivals in town. Zatoichi immediately senses what no one else has noticed — O-sei is actually a man — and O-kinu explains that she and her brother became geishas because the profession's stylized makeup, costumes and mannerisms have allowed them to pursue their parents' murderers through every stratum of feudal society. Ten years earlier, the rest of the Naruto family was slaughtered by bandits, and the orphaned siblings have never wavered in their desire for vengeance. By the time Zatoichi moves on, everyone's wrongs have been righted and gallons of blood have been spilled. Created by writer Kan Shimozawa, Zatoichi has been featured in 26 movies between 1962 and 1989, all starring Shintaro Katsu; the blind swordsman was also the star of a five-year Japanese TV series. Kitano retains all Zatoichi's familiar characteristics, from his love of gambling to the cane that conceals a samurai sword, as well as the series' familiar blend of humor and action. Kitano even stages several versions of Zatoichi's trademark standoffs, in which gangs bristling with weapons appear from nowhere, surround the apparently helpless blind man and are sliced to bloody bits. But the subversive implications of O-sei's gender masquerade are new, and quasi-musical sequences — scenes of farming and house-building are carefully synchronized to Keiichi Suzuki's percussive score — bring the film to a bravura tap-dancing finale as exhilarating as it is bizarre. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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