Review © Alex Apple, 2004.

Directed by Takeshi Kitano, 116 min. starring "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano, Michiyo Ookusu, Gadarukanaru Taka, Yuuko Daike, and Daigorô Tachibana .

Takeshi Kitano's first foray into Jidaigeki (Japanese period drama) is little short of amazing; hardly groundbreaking, it must be said, but nevertheless exactly what you want from a samurai movie - some mean old villagers, decades-old grudges, a bit of soap opera, lots of swordplay, a formation dance number and, er, cross-dressing geishas.

OK, so maybe those last bits are hardly what you'd expect when walking into a showing of an Akira Kurosawa movie, or indeed any costume drama this side of Pride and Prejudice, but Kitano's updating of the long-running Zatoichi series has thoroughly moved the genre into the modern era. The adventures of the blind samurai masseur have been filmed an inordinate amount in Japan; by 1989, the twenty-sixth instalment had been released, though it must be said this reworking is the first since the eighties. And with an internationally recognisable cast - well, OK, Takeshi Kitano and Tadanobu Asano (perhaps best known for his role as Kakihara in Ichi The Killer) - the portents, it must be said, were exceedingly good.

To be fair, to give a synopsis of this movie is to partially spoil the way it's presented on-screen. It's very similar to a novel, with plot and subplot winding together so that by the (admittedly a little dissatisfying) conclusion you're aware of what drives all the key characters, both presently and by events that have shaped their past. Nevertheless, here's as much as I can say without giving too much away: as a blind masseur wanders through Japan, he encounters an old woman whom he helps to carry a load. Invited by her to stay the night at her lodgings, he becomes embroiled in the affairs of the village - a gang war; preparations for a local festival; two geishas looking for revenge; a ronin (samurai without a master) and his ill wife trying to escape his shame.

It's the way these elements are skillfully intertwined that are part of the movie's success. It's slow for sure, but so meticulous that by the time the two hours is up you feel like you've known these people all your life. While some of the characters are just so damn hateful, you nevertheless become concerned with their fate - not in the sense of right versus wrong, but in the interests of seeing a fair conclusion for all concerned. Kitano plays his character with a huge amount of dignity, which is beautifully contrasted by Asano's somewhat brutal (yet tortured) Ronin. And the performances of the other actors can't really be faulted either - all of the characters are so rounded, so believeable, that you are plunged into their world effortlessly.

Basically, Zatoichi is purely concerned about the way that the masseur (as he is called throughout the movie - only towards the end is his true identity even hinted at) inveigles his way into these events. Without intending to, he becomes involved in all these events, whether it's via an innocent trip to the local gambling den, or trying to pick up two geishas for a night of... you know, or the final, potentially explosive showdown. The masseur is, in many ways, not the central character in the traditional sense, but rather the glue that binds all the threads together, who manages to enable all concerned to reach, for want of a better word, closure. The characters are beautifully depicted - living entities almost, insanely fleshed-out, so that we're left in no doubt as to why they are as they are, and how events in their past have moulded them into the people they are as depicted in the film. While there's a certain sense of disappointment in some of the conclusions, and similarly no lack of confusion at the movie's ending, nevertheless it's an immensely satisfying journey getting there.

Beautifully shot, Zatoichi nevertheless does fall down in a few areas. For some, the pace of the film could be inordinately slow - it's nothing like as fast-paced as it could be, and, while spectacular, a lot of the battle scenes are over in a flash. While this may be realistic, it's not quite typical of the genre which has brought us up to expect Kill Bill-style kinetic action. That said, you're left in little doubt that these are some of the most brutal swordsmanship scenes ever commited to film. There's no shortage of severed limbs, gruesome deaths and blood flying everywhere. The only problem is that much of the blood is CGI based, meaning that it doesn't look quite realistic and, equally, that it doesn't stain the combatants as much as you feel it should. Likewise, there's an awful lot of the same shot - victim's back to camera, slash, slash, CGI blood-spurt, victim falls. It's a minor fault, but for the gorehounds among you, probably not what you're after.

Likewise, the film will take criticism from those who feel the final song and dance number is totally incongruous. But this is not a movie without humour; not least the Kendo scene where a villager tries to teach three lads from the village the art of swordsmanship. As the film builds, you can see how important to the village the final festival is, and how much time they take to make proper preparations for it; and when its time finally arrives, it's a joyous occasion perfectly contrasting the events which the masseur is subjecting himself to. It's a release, a celebration of the village finally being free of its former tyranny, and totally in keeping with the atmosphere of the film.

Even if you've never seen a samurai movie before, and think you don't like the genre, you need to see this film. With enough blood to rival Ichi The Killer, it falls comfortably into the "extreme" catagory, yet still holds itself comfortably as a piece of serious "literary" cinema, while not forgetting it's prime aim is to entertain. It's a movie you'll find yourself drawn back to time and again, and each viewing is more intense than the last. It's one of the best movies I've had the pleasure of watching in a long time. Do yourself a favour, don't dismiss it out of hand, just try it.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment value: 8/10
Sex: 1/10 - gender-bending geishas notwithstanding!
Violence: 20/10
Number of fake-looking CGI blood splurges: dozens (sadly)
Kendo: don't take lessons from the locals
Litres of tomato ketchup: none, it's all CGI - virtual sauce

***ESSENTIAL!***

Zatoichi Wallpapers
NB: The Snowblood Apple overlay logo does NOT appear on the full-size versions.


You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2004

Snowblood Apple Filmographies:
"Beat" Takeshi Kitano
Tadanobu Asano
Yui Natsukawa
Yuuko Daike

Links
http://office-kitano.co.jp/zatoichi/ - the official Japanese site. [Japanese only]
http://www.zatoichi.co.uk/ - Tartan's official UK site for the movie
http://www.miramax.com/zatoichi/ - Miramax are the distributors for the US - let's hope they don't hack it about
http://www.zatoichi.co.kr/INDEX.HTM - the Korean official site (the DVD has English subs, by the way)
http://www.hackwriters.com/zatoichi.htm - an immensely erudite, beautifully written, knowledgeable essay by the Rev. Antonio Hernandez, with an even more in-depth page at http://www.hackwriters.com/zatoichi2.htm - absolutely essential reading for anyone with a serious and scholarly interest in the subject
http://www.midnighteye.com/reviews/zatoichi.shtml - Midnight Eye's incisive review
http://www.imagesjournal.com/2002/reviews/zatoichi/text.htm - some background information about earlier movies in the series

http://www.jpreview.com/Reviews%20HTML/reviews/zatoichi.html - jpreview being spot on again, as usual

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