Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Zatoichi (座頭市) (2003)

For the Japanese moviegoer, there may be no framework better established than that of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman. He is a gentle, soft-spoken, middle-aged man who wanders around the 18-century (Edo period) countryside, visiting gambling parlors and helping people in need. He carries a cane with a sword hidden inside, and when he is sufficiently provoked, the sword flashes out and a very surprised yakuza's blood sprays all over the place. Great stuff. A series spanning no less than 26 films was made, starring Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi himself.

I took a general Japanese culture class in college, and we spent a few days watching a Katsu Zatoichi film, if that tells you anything about how ingrained in Japan's cinema culture the series is. I was transfixed. There is something innately satisfying about knowing that some tough-talking yakuza bully is about to get his intestines splattered all over the wall by a meek blind man.

It is a revered, slightly cheesy franchise that remained dormant for many years until this re-imagining by the great Takeshi Kitano (known in his home country as "Beat" Takeshi), a venerated Japanese actor and artist, a published poet who is perhaps best known for portraying hard-boiled yakuza tough-guy types. (Years ago he was in an accident that paralyzed one side of his face, and a running joke in Japan says that you can't tell which one, since his expression never changes) Western audiences may know him best as the "teacher" in 2000's Battle Royale (バトル・ロワイアル), which is awesome, by the way, and will probably get its own entry on here at some point. Kintaro is also a major Japanese directing talent, and he brings his usual uncompromisingly singular vision to Zatoichi.

The story stays true to the feel of the original Zatoichi series. It feels episodic in some ways: it's just one of the blind swordsman's many adventures, and that gives a subtle depth to the way Kitano portrays the character. Anyway it begins in the manner of many (most?) samurai flicks: a country village is under the thumb of two opposing Yakuza clans. Zatoichi totters up the road with his cane. He meets a widow (the lovely Michiyo Okosu in an equally lovely supporting role) who offers him a place to stay ("Don't get any ideas," she warns him). He wanders into town to gamble and comes across her nephew, a comically pathetic gambling addict who is none too lucky at dice. Guadalcanal Taka, a Japanese comedian, is hilarious as the hapless nephew. He plays it earnestly and gets a lot of big laughs. Through a series of misadventures they meet a pair of murderous geisha, and the plot turns toward revenge drama. There is also another dangerous newcomer in town, a ronin who has been hired by one of the clans as a yojimbo, or bodyguard/retainer. He may be as fast as Zatoichi, and we see him ruthlessly kill a lot of people. He's not an evil character like his employers, though, and we see the movie heading toward a climax we don't necessarily want to see played out.

This is classic stuff, but many directors tend to get heavyhanded and ham-fisted with such rich material. Kitano, on the other hand, has a deft touch. He knows what scenes need real emotion, he knows when the audience needs a little (or a lot) of blood, and he knows when to inject his bizarre sense of humor, which is quite frequently.

Kitano, like Kurosawa (if that comparison may be permitted), has an eye for the austere and balanced. This is a beautifully shot film. Typical action movies, in the US and abroad, have developed a sort of common visual language within the past twenty years that has become dogma. Fast camera movement, even faster cuts, camera shaking all over the damn place. These developments were striking the first few times we saw them, but to me it's grown tiresome. Kitano's Zatoichi has a refreshingly unique feel. There is frequent camera motion, to be sure, but just as often Kitano sets up still, contemplative shots that allow the viewer to ruminate a little. Imagine that. Overall the scenes are filmed methodically, with gentle pans and zooms that regard the subjects thoughtfully. Kitano often lets a shot linger for a few seconds longer than we've become accustomed to, and it is jarring but incredible at the same time. People and backgrounds are arranged precisely.

And yet this is an action movie. There is no lack of blood, in fact during the fight scenes it is spraying everywhere in fine jidaekgi (samurai flick) fashion. Kitano said in an interview regarding the film that he doesn't like sword fights where the swords clash together too much, as it isn't true to life. Watching these scenes I have to agree (no, I have never been in a sword fight, unfortunately); when two men are trying to kill each other they don't move so the audience can follow, they try to cut their opponent down as fast as they possibly can. The swords flash out and the action is over in a second. That is not to say that the choreography isn't fantastic, though.

Striking visuals contrast with the serene, earth-toned look of the film, and the whole thing feels very familiar and surprising at the same time. Kitano dyed his short hair bleach-blond for the role, I assume for no other reason than it visually distinguishes Zatoichi. It was a bold choice, but like many other bold choices that went into this film, Kitano pulls it off completely.

The most arresting, and delightful, thing about this movie is the undercurrent of percussive rhythm throughout. There are short musical interludes woven into the film; farmers swinging hoes into the ground in a complex syncopated beat, people in a field dancing in time with falling raindrops, workmen building a house. This is not a "musical" at all, at least not in the way we typically understand that term, but these little interludes are perhaps the true showcase of Kitano's talent as a director. He obviously has a deeply intuitive understanding of the subtle beats of combat scenes, but he applies that knowledge to every aspect of his film; everything from the way Zatoichi's footsteps crunch on the dirt path to the way the characters speak, the timing of the cuts, etc.

Speaking of music, this film has one of my favorite movie scores, by the composer Keiichi Suzuki. The film is silent when it has to be, but often it is alive with simple, percussive tunes. Xylophone, Japanese drums, electric organ. The modern, avant-garde character of the score clashes in a really pleasing way with the traditional, conventional look of Edo Period Japan.

It's not really giving anything away to say that movie ends with a big, elaborate dance number where all the characters come out on a stage and stomp away to pounding Japanese drums. This is a controversial aspect of this film, but I find myself wondering why. I thought it was an absolute delight. Does it make sense plot-wise? Maybe not, but plot is hardly the focal point of this movie anyway. I think it ties together the rhythmic sensibilities of the entire film, but more to the point it's memorable and fun. People bitch about strange things. The conventionality of the modern action movie is to blame, probably. In the West, it seems like all of our revered franchises (Bond, Batman, et al) are being re-imagined as gritty, dark, heavy-handed films with all the joy sucked out of them. What's wrong with simply having some fun at the movies? Anyway, it's yet another risk I'm glad Kitano took. It's a perfect finale from a fearless director.

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