Zatôichi (2003) Film Review 5/5

Zatôichi the blind swordsman is something of an iconic character in Japanese cinema and indeed, Japanese culture. There have been literally hundreds of “Zatôichi” movies and television show episodes since the birth of television in Japan, and now it’s Beat Takeshi’s turn to take on the “Zatôichi” mythology. Bring on the sword-fu.

Playing the title role of the movie is a Japanese actor by the name of Beat Takeshi, A.K.A. Takeshi Kitano. He started life as a stand-up comedian, and then managed to morph into a legitimate dramatic actor, something like the career arc of Robin Williams and Jaime Foxx. Except Japanese, instead of black or coked up. He’s mostly known here in the States as an actor in a few well-done Yakuza movies like Brother, and for his role as Kitano-sensei in my favorite Japanese movie ever, “Battle Royale.”

Takeshi is commendable in the role of Zatôichi. He moves with slow, deliberate movements, and with his dyed white hair, he looks much older than he actually is, which helps establish the deliberate way Zatôichi moves when, say, walking through town with the way that Zatôichi moves in combat, which is what drives this film.

You’re probably accustomed to American fight scenes, which last forever. You know the kind I’m talking about. People trade punches for 8 or 9 minutes, steel clashes on steel for epic, thrilling battles. It’s all quite overblown and after awhile, it’s quite boring. That’s what makes “Zatôichi” such a refreshing change.

The fights in “Zatôichi” are usually over in a few moves. Bad guy does something; Zatôichi chops off his arm and guts him. Bad guy talks shit; Zatôichi breaks his ankle and cuts his throat in a spray of beautiful blood. In other words, the fights in “Zatôichi” are more like real sword fights in which one fuck up means death, and like real street brawls in which there is usually only a few moves made before someone ends up on the ground in a bloody heap.

Kitano the director has quite a bit of style and panache. Even on the shitty bootlegged VCD I watched the flick on, the settings looked great. The blood spray and digital effects were well done, for once, and the soundtrack worked well with the feel of the movie. There was traditional Japanese music, classical, and in a few instances, modern techno-style music with overlays of both classical and traditional Japanese music. It all works quiet well, and this careful balance between new and old is sort of Takeshi’s calling card.

One thing to be on the lookout for is the twists at the end of the flick, which are quite unexpected, and the bizarre Bollywood dance routines done at random times in the movie by unimportant background characters. Well, the dance routine at the very end is somewhat appropriate, since it’s a festival setting. Unfortunately, unless they knew how to tap dance in feudal Japan, it’s an anachronism. It’s sort of a nice way to end the flick, though, counterbalancing the choreographed violence with the choreographed dance routine.

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