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Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2003

No beating this hero


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Running time: 115 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Old-timers in the Japanese film industry often complain that no one makes entertainment here anymore. Animation, in their view, doesn't count -- they're not real movies, you know. They also don't much like the romantic dramas that are gussied-up TV shows or the CG extravaganzas that are video games without the controls.

What the old-timers (who are nearly all male) really mean by "entertainment" often involves men in top-knots slashing at each other with swords.

They liked the Akira Kurosawa of "The Seven Samurai" far more than the Kurosawa who filmed adaptations of Russian literary classics. They still have fond memories of the "Zatoichi" series -- 26 films, as well as a spinoff TV show, about a blind masseur who makes his living less by kneading aching muscles than by gambling and swordfighting.

The title character, played in all 26 episodes by Shintaro Katsu, had powers that were close to psychic -- he was blind but could read the moves of his opponents by their sounds or smells. In the first installment of the series, Kenji Misumi's "Zatoichi Monogatari (The Tale of Zatoichi)" (1962), Katsu's superman could split a lit candle in mid air or place a winning bet after listening to the way the dice rolled. Audiences loved this flimflam, as well as Katsu's earthy onscreen persona. A dirty hero, willing to get his hands bloody for money, Katsu's Zatoichi was also the definition of I-did-it-my-way cool.

Fourteen years after the last "Zatoichi" film and six years after Katsu's death, Takeshi Kitano has loosely reworked the first film in the series. Titled simply "Zatoichi," it not only won Kitano the Best Director prize at this year's Venice Film Festival, but is also packing theaters in Japan, drawing everyone from teens to old-timers.

It is very much a Kitano film, which means it's quirky, violent and self-indulgent. It is also the most entertaining thing he has ever done, quite deliberately so. I never thought I would write "crowd pleaser" in a Kitano film review -- but there it is.

Old-timers may balk at the already-famous tap-dance finale, with its big postmodernist wink at everything that has gone before, but they will like the way Kitano stages the swordplay, with brutally efficient choreography and spurts of realistic CG blood.

Also, instead of carefully, if ploddingly, developing his characters and their relationships before getting to the good parts -- the strategy of many an old jidai geki (period drama) director -- Kitano plunges right in. Bang comes the opening title -- and out come the swords.

Though filled with flying limbs and falling bodies, the film is hardly a straight samurai swashbuckler. It nimbly jumps back and forth in time, while freely violating genre rules. Also, though it takes the side of the common folk in their never-ending struggle against corruption, Japanese-style, it is anything but a tract. For all the poses of we-the-people celebration and gestures of subversion, "Zatoichi" is Kitano's homage to both the series and the genre.

"Zatoichi" begins with assorted wanderers drifting into a town. One is Zatoichi (Kitano), also known as Ichi, who makes his entrance by dicing three yakuza. Another is Hattori (Tadanobu Asano), a haggard-looking ronin (masterless samurai) who hires out as a yojimbo (a sort of feudal-era hit man) to buy medicine for his beautiful, tubercular wife (Yui Natsukawa). Others are Okinu (Yuko Daike) and Osei (Daigoro Tachibana) -- a pair of sisters who work as itinerant entertainers and are as deadly as they are lovely.

The town is run by Ginzo (Ittoku Kishibe), a slimy yakuza boss, with the aid of a weaselly merchant (Saburo Ishikura). Before tangling with this pair, however, Ichi comes to the aid of Shinkichi (Guadalcanal Taka), a goofy lunk who is losing at a Ginzo-run dice game when Zatoichi puts him on the winning path. Then Hattori, at the suggestion of a cagey old sake shop owner (Akira Emoto) and after a dazzling display of swordsmanship, enters Ginzo's employ.

When Ichi and Hattori meet, in the old man's shop, they clash immediately, if not fatally. Meanwhile, the sisters want to get next to Ginzo, for dark reasons of their own. Fate is also drawing them to Ichi -- their natural ally in the looming battle with Ginzo and his minions. But how can two women and a blind man take on a yakuza army? For one thing, it helps to be unbeatable with a sword -- but then Hattori is.

The showdown between Zatoichi and the ronin swordsman was also the dramatic centerpiece of the Misumi film, but Kitano's path to it is far more winding. Few of the principals are what they seem. They have hidden identities, secret lives. They are survivalists, first and foremost. Hattori, being both dutiful and doomed, is one glaring exception. There is a contemporary ring to these poses and masks that Kitano advertises by sporting blonde hair. Not of the period? No one notices or cares, including, after the first shock, the audience.

The injections of humor, which often devolve into variety-show slapstick in other Kitano films, are more pointed in "Zatoichi," as well as funnier. A portly simpleton dashing about with a spear, dreaming of samurai glory, is not just a running joke, but Kitano's way of telling us (and himself?) not to take this sword stuff so seriously.

What does it all mean? Maybe, in the end, not very much. Kitano's intent is less penetrating social commentary than a rousing good time. And there is something rousing about "Zatoichi," something that chases the endless-recession blues. How many samurai movies leave you humming as you walk out the door? One, for now -- but can a sequel be far behind? Kitano told the press that he already has a title for it: "Zatoichi vs. the Terminator."

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