Let’s just get this out of the way: Zatoichi does indeed include a big tap-dancing production-number finale complete with overhead Busby Berkeley shots, as reviewers have made much of. And, yep, the splashy ending actually works within the confines of this original and unique film. What I’ve not seen really addressed, though, is why it works.
This unexpected flourish doesn’t just spring up out of nowhere. Kitano has carefully and deliberately placed increasingly involved, incipient musical numbers throughout his film, working on the building-rhythm style of which cineastes will be familiar from the opening of Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight. So when Zatoichi finally bursts into that final production-number spectacular, the viewer has been primed for it; it seems the stylistic culmination of the film. In a sense, though, this grand climax is merely a logical extension of the modern martial-arts film, where the fights are increasingly done in the style of musical numbers.
It’s only been a few weeks since I noted this tendency in Hero; Kitano’s film merely takes it one step further. However, there’s a lot more to Zatoichi than its crossover into musical hybrid. It’s quite different from Chinese martial arts films even in its basic approach. The fights are just as fanciful, but in a markedly different way: They rely on unbelievable swordplay and outguessing the opponent’s next move — both acceptable in the context of the film — and are here distinguished by an extremely high blood-letting quotient. Most of the violence isn’t likely to curl the toes of the squeamish, however, since the reality factor lands somewhere in between Monty Python (think the “Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days” skit from the TV show) and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1.
OK, there is one pretty graphic depiction of slicing through an opponent’s arm to get to his body that caused even me to wince (despite the fairly obvious use of a wax limb) plus innumerable bits of rampant dismemberment; yet rarely is there a suggestion that any of this is to be taken all that seriously. I mean, we’re talking about a movie in which Japan’s best swordsman, Zatoichi (Kitano under his acting name of Beat Kitano), is blind; where one of the main characters is a geisha drag queen (and happy about it, thank you); where peasants hoe fields in rhythm; where a certifiable loon wearing a sumo diaper and sporting a spear occasionally runs through scenes for no apparent reason; and … I think you get the idea.
Story-wise, there’s not all that much here. Zatoichi, who is invariably referred to by his trade as a masseur, is a wandering samurai who happens to fall in with a duo out to revenge themselves on those responsible for the deaths of their parents. The rest is mere embellishment involving Zatoichi’s friendship with a no-account gambler (Gadarukanaru Taka) and his aunt (Michiyo Ookusu), and a rather basic film noir subplot about gangsters employing a protection racket to take over a town.
If all that makes the film sound like a very peculiar hybrid, fair enough; it is. Yet Zatoichi is successful in that it retains its own personality even while echoing other films and genres. Other than the apparent Mamoulian reference, there’s very little in this film that specifically evokes another movie. Rather, Kitano evokes what appears to be his memory-filtered idea of other genres, and makes all of it his own. The character of Zatoichi is taken from a series of Kan Shimozawa novels that have already been turned into a successful series of movies. However, as with Kitano’s other inspirations, this one seems very much his own personal take on Shimozawa.
Astonishing as Zatoichi is in many ways, it’s hardly perfect. It starts strong, but after the first 15 minutes, it falters and drags a bit, only to redeem itself at about the halfway mark. But once the film sets up its complex interweavings of characters, plot and subplot lines, it moves with the precision of its blind hero. Flawed as Zatoichi is, it’s one of those lovely cinematic experiences that surprises you while you’re watching it, but afterward seems very precisely structured toward a predetermined end.
Everything finally fits and makes sense without ever seeming predictable. Few movies can manage that, and fewer still do while maintaining such an intensely personal style. Unfortunately, Asheville seems largely uninterested, judging by the fact that only 10 other people were in the audience on Friday night. Whether it’s the fear of foreign-language films or the fact that Zatoichi didn’t have the publicity boost that made viewers go beyond their prejudices against subtitles with Hero, I don’t know.
I do know that anyone looking for a truly unusual work by a filmmaker with a distinctive personality — increasingly rare in these cookie-cutter-movie days — is missing out by not getting to the theater with all possible speed to see Zatoichi. It probably won’t be around long.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke