Director: Takeshi Kitano
Written: Takeshi Kitano
There are already many films and TV series about the blind masseur, gambler and swordsman, Zatoichi, a fictional character created by Kan Shimozawa (Source: Wikipedia). This movie is an adaptation by Takeshi Kitano, in which the director himself plays the main character.
The story is set in Edo period where Zatoichi stumbles into a remote small town. Two yakuza gangs are fighting for power, abusing common villagers in the process (reminding of Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo”). There he meets two geishas plotting revenge for their family; an unsuccessful, but kindhearted, gambler and his hospitable aunt; and a powerful ronin, a masterless samurai, trying to save his sick wife. With a strong sense of justice, and powerful sword skills, Zatoichi helps the villagers to rid the town of gangsters.
Kitano’s take on “Zatoichi” is not the typical Kurosawa-like samurai action, as he has a more satirical approach. There is a lot of comedy throughout, as well as bloody action. The funny scenes are almost cartoonish in style, like anime made into film; and while I did enjoy the style, some things in the movie did bother me. For example, the village idiot, who serves as comic relief, was an “over-the-top” detail in a movie already packed with comedy. Also, towards the end of the movie the pace became very fast. The pace made it difficult to follow the unfolding of the story; and it did not leave any space for the climax of the movie – the meeting of the ronin and Zatoichi. It ends before it can fully begin. The ronin character (played by famous Tadanobu Asano) was supposed to be a dramatic and sad character: a portrayal of inner conflict between the samurai code and the realities of life. However, he had so little time to develop and have his story told, that in the end it is difficult to feel any sympathy for him.
The Zatoichi character is one of the most popular in Japanese samurai films. From a Western fiction point of view, a blind masseur is a very unlikely hero. However, he has this daoist master quality, with a bit of Sun Tzu “The Art of War” philosophy that I assume makes him so appealing to Japanese audiences. Daoism (or Taoism) developed in opposition to Confucian philosophy, which values ritual, respect for authority and loyalty. Early dao philosophers (like Laozi and Zhuangzi) mostly questioned reality and did not concern themselves with matters of society as much. They were individual thinkers, with the ideal of seeing the world without any prejudice, going back to the origins, a state of mind in union with nature, the dao. To achieve that, they often became hermits, living apart from society and are often portrayed as being quirky and almost insane (this applies to early stages of dao school, which was later developed differently).
Although founded in China, both Confucianism and Daoism had profound influence in Japan. The Samurai class had a very Confucian structure. Most of the samurai type heroes had inner conflict that was inherent in Confucianism itself: how to balance loyalty to authority against the personal judgment of right and wrong (seppuku, the ritual suicide, is a portrayal of how strong this conflict is). So compared to that, Zatoichi is a completely different type of character. On film he may seem awkward and weird, but when the time comes, his sword is swift. Lastly, the Sun Tzu philosophy of war is mostly about deception, and using your strength against opponents’ weaknesses. While samurai walk around showing their swords, with a clear aura of threat, Zatoichi seems vulnerable and weak. He tries to conceal his strength in order to gain advantage and use it at the critical moment;. With Takeshi Kitano’s performance, this character is really a pleasure to watch. As Roger Ebert explained it:
The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi” embodies the kinds of contradictory elements that make Takeshi Kitano Japan’s most intriguing contemporary actor-director. He plays, as usual, a man with an impassive face, few words, and sudden bursts of action that end in a few seconds. He is vastly amused at private jokes. He has a code, but enforces it according to his own rules. And then there is the style of the movie, and what only can be called its musical numbers.
Despite the drawbacks, Zatoichi is a movie for all who like samurai cinema or chanbara (the Japanese term for “sword fighting” movies). With samurais, ninjas, geishas, plenty of blood, and even wooden sandal tap-dancing, this movie has a lot to offer.