Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman, 09-20-04

On Monday evening the 20th, we met friends to see Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman at the Downer theatre. I had some familiarity with the earlier series of films, and Georgie has become quite interested in martial arts movies, so we were both eager to see it. This new version starts out in the classic “stranger comes to town” mode employed by classic westerns as well as both the Yojimbo, Baby Cart and Zatoichi films in the past. What makes Zatoichi different, of course, is that he is blind. In classical Japan, blind people were given protected status and the taught the trade of massage. The title character is an itinerant masseur, which gives him plenty of scope to find trouble. In this case, trouble inhabits a market town groaning under the depredations of its gangster element. Zatoichi becomes involved with the good folk of the town, including a pair of orphans seeking revenge, and eventually destroys the criminals. There is a great deal of both humor and tragedy in the film, plus some fantastic elements. Although resolutely earthbound, the movie does for splattering blood what Hero does for flying, so be warned. Zatoichi’s cane sword evidently has a monomolecular edge, since at one point he cuts through a stone lantern without dulling it. And he has holographic hearing that can put Daredevil to shame, since he can do things like cut through the grip of a sword without nicking the hands of the wielder. On the other hand, we saw things we had never seen in more realistic films and wondered why—as when a clumsy swordsman draws his blade and cuts the man next to him. The film has a marvelous soundtrack, in which rhythmic sounds like men hoeing and chopping or rain falling morph into music, and is one of the few films I’ve seen where surround sound gave some actual three dimensional effects.
Takeshi Kitano, A.K.A. Beat Takeshi, gave a rather different reading of the Zatoichi role than that of Shintaro Katsu, who played the blind masseur in the 60’s and 70’s. Katsu was more dignified figure, a massage professional with a deadly sideline. Takeshi’s Zatoichi, with his shuffle, downcast face, gruff mumble and chuckle, seems more an aging hobo who is unexpectedly capable of turning into an engine of destruction when provoked. This gradually changes his inexorable slow progress to something sinister, like Blind Pew in Treasure Island, or Frankenstein’s monster on the march, the more so when he bursts through doors or walls to get at his foes. Very nice supporting performances by Michio Ookusu as Aunt O-Ume, Gadarukanaru Taka (anglicized in the credits as “Guadalcanal Taka”) as her layabout nephew, and Diagoro Tachibana and Yuuko Daike as the orphans. The plot has a couple of nice twists at the end. Plus, the peasant celebration at the end turns into an all-tap-dancing extravaganza. Tap is a Japanese peasant art form? Who knew?
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