Zatoichi (2003) Movie Review

At last, the review of Kitano Takeshi’s “Zatoichi” remake is now online. I’ve had the DVD in my possession for the last, oh, three months or so, but for one reason or another — but mostly simple disinterest — I have ignored it. With the current public relations push for the film well underway in cyberspace and elsewhere, what better time to finally watch the film than now.

“Zatoichi” is Kitano Takeshi’s updating of the popular Japanese TV show of the same name that ran, if I’m not mistaken, for decades in Japan. The movie version stars writer/director Takeshi as the titular Zatoichi, a blind swordsman who wanders feudal Japan killing lots and lots and lots of people. Luckily for the common man, ol Zatoichi, who claims masseuse as his profession of record, always looks out for the little guy. This is a good thing because soon Zatoichi finds himself in a town ruled by a violent gang, and decides to dish out some justice by way of his sword, which is hidden inside his cane. But he better get in line, because two traveling geisha girls are also gunning for the gangsters.

It’s no surprise that “Zatoichi” is well-directed. Takeshi has been an actor/writer/director going on decades now, and is probably the closest evidence of the auteur theory given substance. “Zatoichi” is polished and the direction is flawless and oftentimes lyrical, as if the images onscreen were taking their cues from the soundtrack — or vice versa. A more musically inclined film you won’t find anywhere, something that gives “Zatoichi” an interesting, even lovable, vibe despite its massive bloodshed and darker parts.

The script, on the other hand, could have used a professional proofreader who had no stake in the movie. At least 20 minutes of background pathos could have been shaved, and it wouldn’t have mattered to the overall story. Of note is a series of flashbacks that fleshes out every character except our hero. Frankly, it’s a surprising choice by Takeshi not to tell us anything about Zatoichi the man. All we see of Zatoichi’s past is Zatoichi being Zatoichi — which is blind, old, and killing a bunch of people. I should also warn people that Takeshi uses flashbacks with no fanfare at all, which means it usually took me a couple of minutes to realize when the film was showing a flashback.

Half comedy and half farcical cartoon, “Zatoichi” can’t really be taken seriously, even when the movie shifts into grim mode whenever co-star Tadanobu Asano (“Gojoe”) shows up onscreen. Playing a ronin, Asano’s character freelances as a bodyguard for the local gang in order to earn money to care for his wife. If “Zatoichi” was a video game, Asano is the de facto Big Boss that Zatoichi must defeat in order to beat the game. Although as written, Asano isn’t much of a villain — in fact, he’s not a villain at all despite his willingness to slaughter rival gangsters for his current employer. It’s an interesting idea to make the Big Boss not even a little bit villainous, but it also renders Asano’s inevitable duel with Zatoichi strangely anti-climactic.

Although there’s probably too many fluff moments in it, “Zatoichi” is nevertheless a fun movie. As if to further indicate that he had no serious intentions with the movie, Takeshi uses CGI extensively. When Zatoichi’s sword dispenses justice and limbs go flying, it’s readily obvious those are CGI arms getting sliced; the same is true of the sudden wounds that appear when people are slashed. This allows Takeshi to have blood spurt with wild abandon, literally gushing in the most absurd manner. It’s all very over-the-top, which was probably the point.

“Zatoichi’s” storyline is basically a simple one, and shouldn’t be considered beyond the realm of popcorn entertainment. I would have liked to know more about the main character, and felt somewhat cheated, especially since we know so much about everyone else. Toward the end, Takeshi seems to be hinting at a past connection between Zatoichi and the gangster’s elusive boss, but to tell you the truth I wouldn’t be surprised if the final 15 minutes of “Zatoichi” was mostly ad-libbing, including a 10-minute musical number.

Should I have watched “Zatoichi” earlier instead of letting the DVD languish in the “to watch” queue? It’s certainly a fun and enjoyable film, even if Takeshi might have approached it as nothing more than light-hearted fluff. As with the CGI blood, there doesn’t seem to be much weight to the film.

FYI: In all the years I’ve watched Asian cinema, I can’t remember a time when an American studio went to such great lengths to promote a film. “Zatoichi” might just be the first of its kind; hopefully it won’t be the last.

Takeshi Kitano (director) / Takeshi Kitano (screenplay), Kan Shimozawa (novels)
CAST: Takeshi Kitano …. Zatoichi
Michiyo Ookusu …. Aunt O-Ume
Gadarukanaru Taka …. Shinkichi
Daigoro Tachibana …. Geisha O-Sei
Yuuko Daike …. Geisha O-Kinu
Tadanobu Asano …. Gennosuke Hattori
Ittoku Kishibe …. Ginzo

Buy Zatoichi on DVD