Zatoichi, Takeshi Kitano’s 2003 samurai-and-swordplay epic, is a film that will probably play very differently to Japanese and Western audiences. Whereas the title character has made very few cultural inroads outside of Japan, at home he is a 20th century transmedia icon akin to Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Who; the lethal, prodigiously skilled blind swordsman originally featured as a minor character in a series of novels by Kan Shimozawa before taking centre stage in a staggering 26 films made between 1962 and 1989, as well as a spinoff TV series in the early 70s. Consequently, when Kitano – one of Japan’s biggest and most successful actors and directors – announced in 2002 that he was taking on such an enduring character, expectations and anticipation were huge.
Understanding the latter point is perhaps crucial for getting in the right headspace to appreciate Zatoichi. The film, while hugely enjoyable and masterfully executed, is a very mainstream proposition. In the UK it is available on the none-more-arthouse label Artificial Eye, which may lead one to expect a more ‘alternative’ offering; those who expect such a film may be surprised by the relatively straightforward plotting, broad slapstick comedy interludes and the fourth-wall shattering Bollywood-style song and dance number that closes the film.
Ultimately, Kitano’s Zatoichi is an attractive, accessible, reverential repackaging of a well-loved character that may well be low on insight or subtlety but rates high on excitement and pure cinematic pleasure. The plot will be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a Western; Zatoichi arrives in an otherwise peaceful small town that is terrorised by a violent gang, and he promptly sets about seeing them off. Along the way, he befriends a local farmer and her gambling-addict son, assists two geishas seeking to avenge the murder of their family, and duels with Gennosuke, a powerful ronin who may well match him for sword skills.
The film looks ravishing, with the various locales rendered beautifully and a unified sense of location in the town. But really the headline attractions here are Kitano as Zatoichi, and the swordplay, and both are first rate. Kitano marks out Zatoichi’s fighting skills as being devastatingly precise rather than showy, contrasted well with the more lavish displays by other characters. In particular, Zatoichi’s showdowns with the various yakuzas towards the end of the film are hugely exciting and well-realised. Only the much-anticipated duel between Zatoichi and Gennosuke disappoints, feeling thrown away and anti-climactic.
In keeping with the humble nature of his character, Kitano’s performance is admirably restrained, yet he carries enough presence to anchor the whole film. The rest of the characters are appealingly drawn, with enough detail to flesh them out without bogging the film down with backstories. In particular, Gennosuke’s fleeting distaste for what his work forces him to do is a nice touch, while the gang bosses are pleasingly repugnant. The geisha storyline perhaps engages less because the ‘twist’ is fairly well signposted, but it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Dance troupe The Stripes, whose performance closes the film, appear earlier in a number of entertaining slapstick cameos where they show off their skills whilst posing as farmers and builders.
If there’s one criticism to be had of Zatoichi, it’s that ultimately the film feels fairly inconsequential; whilst it’s a hugely enjoyable way to pass two hours, there’s not a much that lingers with the viewer afterwards other than the sense of having had a lot of fun. Really though, it feels rather mean spirited to hold this against the film. Zatoichi is a terrific piece of work that goes full-throttle in delivering a solidly entertaining mainstream experience. I loved it, and if you’re in the mood for a slice of pure cinematic pleasure, I wager you will too.