(director/writer: Takeshi Kitano; screenwriter: based on a short story by Kan Shimozawa; cinematographer: Katsumi Yanagijima; editor: Takeshi Kitano; music: Keiichi Suzuki; cast: Takeshi Kitano Beat Takeshi (Zatoichi), Tadanobu Asano (Gennosuke Hattori), Yui Natsukawa (O-Shino), Michiyo Ookusu (Aunt O-Ume), Gadarukanaru Taka (Shinkichi), Daigorô Tachibana (Geisha O-Sei), Yuuko Daike (Geisha O-Kinu), Ittoku Kishibe (Ginzo), Saburo Ishikura (Boss Ogi); Runtime: 111; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Masayuki Mori/Tsunehisa Saito; Miramax; 2003-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)

“A rich display of fantasy swords play.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Japan’s innovative film personality of many talents Takeshi Kitano (“Hana-Bi”/”Sonatine”/”Kikujiro”) stars, directs, writes and edits a film that feels like a Clint Eastwood revenge film, whether one of those spaghetti Westerns or a Dirty Harry crime thriller. The samurai film is set during feudal times and is a tribute to the “blind swordsman” hero portrayals from 1962 to the late ’80s where it became the longest running and the most popular action series in Japanese cinema, with the title character of Zatoichi originally played by the late Shintaro Katsu (he played Zatoichi in 20 of the 26 movies).

It’s about an itinerant blind masseur (earns his keep gambling and giving massages) who is more than handy with the sword he hides in his cane. Kitano is the blind swordsman with the dyed straw hair named Zatoichi who wanders into a village suffering at the hands of a greedy and ruthless gang shaking down the townies for protection money. The gang is headed by the heartless Ginzo (Ittoku Kishibe) and his gambling house owner partner Ogi (Saburo Ishikura). Zatoichi befriends an outcast elderly woman (Michiyo Ookusu), the aunt of inept gambler Shinkichi (Gadarukanaru Taka), the film’s comic foil, and the masseur also meets a cross-dressing brother (Daigorô Tachibana) and sister (Yuuko Daike) posing as geishas in order to exact revenge on their wealthy parents’ killers they witnessed from their hiding place ten years ago when they were children. Boss Ginzo has hired an unemployed ronin, Gennosuke Hattori (Tadanobu Asano), as a bodyguard, who is forced to take this job to support his ill wife even though she resents that he’s become a killing machine. He might be the equal of Zatoichi as we watch him eliminate two rival gangs with relative ease, but we will have to wait to the concluding scene to see the two swordsmen tangle.

Kitano’s film parodies the samurai film as he keeps to its formulaic presentation but fills the classic fable with offbeat comedy and ends on a weirdly mocking take-off on Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai climactic scene with a foot stomping like tap-dance number provided by a dancing troupe called the Stripes. The heart of the film abounds with a rich display of fantasy swords play at its goriest, slickest and most demanding. There are spurts of blood that spill out in gushes from the bodies slain by the uncanny Zatoichi, who seems to see more than what a normal sighted person can and uses his senses to tell whether the dice are loaded or if a dancing woman is really a man.

The stylish film is done reasonably well as a stunner, holding a strange fascination of its own which elevates it above the B-film status. It gives the action seeking viewer a full dose of CGI created bloodbath scenes, but has some missing ingredients that inhibits it from being one of Kitano’s better yakuza or more arty films. The film as a whole doesn’t hold up as well as it should have, but there are a few oddball scenes that transcend that genre and showoff Kitano’s keen wit and artistry–the one in particular of the strange sight of farmers and carpenters getting together to rebuild a burned down house in the village, which infused it with a bizarre sense that this most bloody film has suddenly turned into a Hollywood musical.

REVIEWED ON 11/17/2004 GRADE: B-