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'Zatoichi' wields blades with kabuki precision

July 23, 2004|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

"The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi," the latest entertainment from Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano, isn't your average blind masseur-gambler-swordsman movie. Based on a series of popular genre standards, the film stars the multitalented auteur as an avenger who wanders the 19th century countryside in a platinum blond buzz cut while swinging the kind of lethal cane favored by William S. Burroughs. When he's not down at the local gambling parlor or untying the knots in some farmer's scapulae, Zatoichi can be found carving Zs in the backs of miscreants. Not surprisingly, his Zorro-like deep-tissue work tends to prove fatal.

This is the first period story from Kitano, best known for his sensational genre-bending features such as the yakuza film "Sonatine" and the cop melodrama "Hana-Bi." Beginning in the early 1960s, the venerated Japanese film studio Daiei produced more than two dozen films about the adventures of the blind masseur-swordsman, one even featuring Toshiro Mifune. Kitano has said in interviews that the idea for a new Zatoichi originated with a friend of Shintaro Katsu, the series' star and sometime director. Along with the hair and cane, Kitano amended the character's vibe. "Mr. Katsu's Zatoichi," he explained, "was more about almost heart-warming relationships he made with the good and meek townspeople. Mine doesn't fully mingle with the good guys. He just keeps slaying bad guys!"

And, after a few uncharacteristic moments of calm, that's precisely what Zatoichi does. The film opens with the camera fixed on the character, his eyes closed and seated in a state of apparent repose. Suddenly, a gang of samurai struts into view. One of the samurai instructs a young and conveniently situated passerby to steal the blind man's cane, which the kid does without a hitch. Satisfied that their prey has been disarmed, the samurai descend on the blind man. In a series of moves so fast they're almost impossible to see (a classic bit of Kitano waggery), Zatoichi swiftly vanquishes the samurai. Through a fusillade of grunts and flashes of clanging steel, the samurai fall in slowed motion, their blood either fanning across the air or pebbling it like beads from a broken necklace.

Kitano's aesthetic of violence has few parallels in contemporary cinema. Although it differs from film to film, the violence generally feels as if it comes out of nowhere, even in the midst of a gun battle. The shock of these sudden eruptions keeps you nervously off balance, because you're never sure when the next bullet or blow will come, or from where. (In "Hana-Bi," Kitano's character stops eating to plunge a chopstick into another man's eye.) The abruptness of the violence and its occasionally discomforting comic undertow means that when characters die in a Kitano film (which they often do), they don't die according to some proscribed genre formulation or spurious moral code. Good guys kill in his films just like bad guys do, and whether they're good or bad makes no difference to their victims.

In "Zatoichi," the bad and the good fall indiscriminately as the masseur-swordsman takes the side of local peasants who are, in classic dramatic fashion, being squeezed by the neighborhood thugs. There's nothing noble about the swordsman's action, however, no sense that he's following the warrior's code. Rather, whether he's mowing down a roomful of gamblers or sniffing out trouble ("You don't smell like a woman," he tells a blade-wielding cross-dresser), there's a sense that he is following his own code, his own way. For a filmmaker whose genre films continually push against the limits of genre form, such a contrary, non-classical approach to this otherwise classic story makes total sense. What makes Kitano's approach in this film all the more unusual is that he has incorporated a number of elements from traditional Kabuki theater into his storytelling.

There has always been more than a touch of Kabuki in Kitano's stories and his on-camera performance style, which veers between stone-like stillness and bursts of comedy or violent action. (His last film, "Dolls," was inspired by the work of one of the greatest Kabuki playwrights.) The Kabuki effect is even more pronounced in "Zatoichi." Kabuki has its origin in dance, and music and dance remain essential to the theatrical form, even in non-dance dramas; the highly stylized performances are generally accompanied by music and are as meticulously choreographed as any Balanchine ballet. In "Zatoichi," Kitano uses exaggerated acting, choreo- graphed violence and, most radically, the rhythms of everyday life -- farmers pounding the earth, the syncopated plop of falling rain -- to turn this genre story into a crypto-Kabuki play and one blissfully idiosyncratic diversion.

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