Zatoichi

Zatoichi

We non-Japanese probably can't fully understand what it means for Takeshi Kitano to make a Zatoichi movie. The best comparison I can come up with is this: Imagine that 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 role of the legendary blind swordsman who wanders through the violent landscape of feudal Japan. TV comic-cum-art film Renaissance man "Beat" Takeshi Kitano taking on the role became quite the mini-scandal in Japanese film circles. Nevertheless, Kitano (most famous in the US for his meditative but violent contemporary crime dramas) trades in his usual long-take 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 - a slightly nonlinear narrative, time taken to focus on quiet subplots, deadpan humor, and seemingly incongruous scenes of dancing or off-beat characters. This time, those scenes - choreographed and performed by Japan's answer to the "Stomp" dance troupe, an appealing bunch of tap-dancers called The Stripes - actually fit nicely into the story, which has Zatoichi befriending a down-on-his-luck gambler and his aunt, as well as a pair of geisha siblings carrying out a lifelong 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 his typical nonconformist fashion he gives his Zatoichi a modern, bleached blonde haircut instead of the traditional shaved-forehead-and-ponytail look. He directs a fine all-star cast, including one of Japan's best known "serious actor" idols, Tadanobu Asano, as the noble ronin (masterless Samurai) who takes on a job as bodyguard for the vicious gang terrorizing the small town that Zatoichi wanders into, and whose showdown with Zatoichi is as anti-climactic 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.