Beat Turns To Slash For A Stylish Samurai Masterpiece

by Joe Sinclair, April 2004

Zatoichi totters into town, an itinerant blind masseur with a gambling habit. But beneath the humble fade lies a fearless and cunning warrior, and hidden in his blind-man's cane is a lightening-quick sword.

In fact, Zatoichi first wandered into Japanese cinematic history in 1962. Shintaro Katsu, who was himself a skilled fencer and musician, made the character hugely popular, starring in a series of 26 samurai sagas over almost 30 years. In Takeshi Kitano's remake (2003) the eponymous hero is reborn with bleached white hair and a ruthless killing-streak.

The blind ("sight impaired" according to the English subtitles) hobo takes on the corrupt and violent gangs of 19th century feudal Japan, fighting for the rights of the downtrodden townsfolk. But there is a playful dark side to Kitano's portrayal, which will be familiar to fans of his earlier films.

Takeshi Kitano, also known as "Beat" Takeshi (because he rose to fame as one half of The Two Beats comedy duo in the 1970s), is a ubiquitous media personality in Japan, an unavoidable presence in newspapers and on television. His directorial debut came in 1989 with Violent Cop, in which he played a violent cop, matching numbing brutality with unnerving black humour. His next film, Boiling Point (1990), was the first in which he took full control as writer, director and star, trade-marking a disorientating mix of un-stylised violence and subtle humour, combined with morally and emotionally vacant characters.

But it was not until the release of later crime films like Sonatine (1993) and Hanabi (1997) that Kitano began to gain a reputation in the west. His first international co-production, Brother (2000), brought an exiled Japanese yakuza to the Los Angeles underworld, and brought Kitano to Hollywood.

Zatoichi is Kitano's first foray into chambara (samurai sword-fighting) jidai-geki (period drama). This genre, usually featuring mysterious wandering loners with strong silent characters, has heavily influenced American westerns. Kurosawa's Rashomon, Seven Samurai and Yojimbo were remade as The Outrage, The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars respectively. But the influence doesn't end there. Apparently, George Lucas heard the word "jidai" and came up with the name Jedi for Star Wars. Jedi Knights share the samurai code of honour bushido ("the way of the warrior") with its principles of courage, honesty, loyalty and compassion. It is also thought that the lightsaber was inspired by Zatoichi's rapid draw.

The mix of violence with comedy is typical of the director, but although the movie has a tinge of darkness, the overall mood is more playful than his crime films. Not only is the comedy (usually slapstick) more obvious, there is also a clear message of humanity running through the film, culminating in the unexpected and spectacular finale. Furthermore, the historical setting, superhuman swordsmanship, and geysers of blood, distance the violence from the oppressive reality found in Kitano's earlier works.

Kitano's movies challenge the audience by removing moral certainties. Hattori is a ronin (a master-less samurai) who hires himself out as a bodyguard to the local gangsters, and finds himself fighting against the legendary Zatoichi. But Hattori is not an inherently evil character - he is driven by the need to earn money to buy a cure for his dying wife. Zatoichi also comes across two deadly geisha, wreaking revenge on the world for the murder of their parents. It is only chance and circumstance that see Hattori and the geisha fighting on different sides. It is also noticeable that the thrust of the story, and its outcome, depends entirely on the influence of outsiders on the established hierarchy. Kitano films often use outsiders to expose and comment on Japanese society, in which the conviction has been that "the nail that sticks out should be hammered down".

Zatoichi is a master of iaido ("the way of harmonising oneself in action") sword fighting. The intention is to unsheathe, strike and re-sheath without any wasted movement. Kitano has said that he wanted the sword action to remain faithful to how it was in the Edo era, and not to follow the trend of Hong Kong wire-action acrobatics. This Zen minimalism seems appropriate for the homeless blind man. In fact, Zatoichi uses an unusual "reverse-draw" style, which gains him an advantage at close quarters and in cramped conditions. The cinematography also alludes to Zen beauty, picking out meditative parallel textures reminiscent of a Zen garden, or flowers floating in water drum.

At times the scene progression in the film is a bit mix and match, but what holds the story together just as it would for a blind person is the sound. Keiichi Suzuki's score blends percussion, strings and pipes in a fusion of traditional and modern Japanese music to create an eerie but pleasant effect. The music builds up from background noise the patter of raindrops or the slush of farmers tilling in the fields. In a haunting moment of discordance the soundtrack is heard above a geisha's song.

Zatoichi is fast, funny and pleasantly bizarre. Although it is much lighter than Kitano's gangster films, there is still more depth than in the shallow style of Tarantino's Kill Bill or the earnest nobility of Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai. An element of mystery remains: is it shyness, friendliness, vacancy or dementia which lies behind Zatoichi's impish chuckle?

Japan Articles by Joe Sinclair

Interview with a Kabuki Actor
Hitch-Hiking in Japan
Japan Travel Tips: Missing the last train in Tokyo
Hot Spring Bathing in Japan
Tokyo Story - Movie Review
Memoirs of a Geisha - Movie Review
Twilight Samurai - Movie Review
Fear And Trembling (Stupeur et Tremblements) - Movie Review
The Fog of War - Movie Review
Zatoichi - Movie Review
Interview with David Mitchell, author of "Cloud Atlas"

Books on Japan