We non-Japanese probably can't fully understand what it means for Takeshi Kitano to make a Zatoichi movie. Here's the best comparison I can come up with: Imagine if Sean Connery had starred in all the James Bond films, and then years after the series ended, Clint Eastwood decided to portray 007 himself in his own Bond flick.
The "official" Zatoichi films numbered 26, all of them starring Shintaro Katsu, whose name obviously became synonymous with the blind swordsman who wanders through feudal Japan. TV comic-cum-art film Renaissance man "Beat" Takeshi Kitano taking on the role was a mini-scandal in Japanese film circles. Nevertheless, Kitano, most famous in the US for his contemporary crime dramas, trades in his usual meditative style for flashy editing and even flashier swordplay, delivering a worthy Samurai action picture. (Amusingly, Miramax retitled the film The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi at the last minute for the US release, presumably so it wouldn't fall to the alphabetical bottom of movie review sections.)
This is still inarguably a Kitano film, with his full bag of tricks: nonlinear narratives, quiet subplots, deadpan humor, and seemingly incongruous dance sequences. Yet those scenes – choreographed and performed by Japan's answer to the "Stomp" dance troupe, an appealing bunch of tap-dancers called The Stripes – actually serve the story, which has Zatoichi befriending a down-on-his-luck gambler while a pair of geisha sisters carry out a vendetta against the men who murdered their family.
The music is great, the cinematography is great, the swordfights are great, and naturally Kitano is great as star, director, writer, and editor (the man does everything!), even if in typical nonconformist fashion his Zatoichi sports a modern, bleached blonde haircut instead of the traditional shaved-forehead-and-ponytail. He directs a fine all-star cast, including Tadanobu Asano as the noble ronin (masterless Samurai) who serves as a bodyguard for the vicious gang terrorizing a small town, and whose showdown with Zatoichi is as anticlimactic as it is inevitable.
This is one of the most singularly enjoyable movies I've seen all year, with a careful balance of mood, character, and action, and a fantastic finale (I'm giving nothing away here) that is nothing less than a full-blown, heart-pumping tap dance number. You read that right. For that alone you should see Zatoichi, but see it for all the other things as well.