ZATOICHI

(AKA Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi)
(2003 - Japan)
With Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano, Michiyo Ookusu, Gadarukanaru Taka [aka Guadalcanal Taka), Daigoro Tachibana, Yuuko Daike
Written and Directed by Takeshi Kitano
Reviewed by JB

This is not your father's Ichi     There's nothing terribly wrong with someone else besides Shintaro Katsu playing Zatoichi.  It's just that nobody ever tried it before actor/director Takeshi Kitano.  Fourteen years after Katsu's final Ichi film ZATOICHI (1989), Kitano revived the character in this enjoyable, funny and often strange movie.  Kitano, a former television comedian turned director and famous in Japan for creating a wide variety of mainstream and experimental films, initially rejected the idea of making ZATOICHI for fear of being compared to the late yet still beloved Shintaro Katsu.  But he was given a free hand to recreate and reconstruct Zatoichi as he saw fit.

     His major mistake, at least for fans of the original films, was making Ichi a cypher with no morals.  This is especially noticeable in the gambling scene, where Ichi hears that the dice have been changed.  In a Katsu picture, this was always the moment for Ichi to perform some quick trick or utter some humorous words to alert fellow gamblers to the con.  If a fight started, Ichi would finish it, but he usually waited until one broke out. In Kitano's interpretation of the character, Ichi slaughters everyone in the joint simply because the dealer switched the dice.  Another mistake was not injecting more humor into the part of Ichi, something Katsu could do in even the most tense and violent scenes.  Kitano said he was afraid to do anything that would make audiences think he was imitating Katsu (hence the blond hair), but surely this comedian could have injected his own brand of comedy into the part.  Yes, there is humor in the film, and good humor too, but rarely is Kitano part of it.

     Still, one of Kitano's objectives was to make a huge, entertaining, popular film, and in that he succeeded, right down to the anachronistic tap dancing ending.  It is the non-Ichi elements from this film that you may remember more, such as the mentally-challenged sumo-sized man who thinks he is a samurai and is featured throughout the film screaming his head off in what is literally a running gag.  The film's funniest moments come from Ichi's sidekick Shinkichi (played by comedian Gadarukanaru [Guadalcanal] Taka, whose highlight (aside from appearing drag) comes when he tests his skills by having three others attack him with sticks, something that quickly turns into a routine that would have made the Three Stooges proud. The most poignant thread is the story of two young geisha girls whom Ichi befriends, one of whom is not what she claims to be.  Once in a while, Kitano creates bits of business for Ichi that are so good, you might swear you had seen them in a Katsu film.  I'm still trying to remember if in a Katsu film, anybody ever painted "eyes" on Ichi's eyelids to fool the authorities.

     Takeshi Kitano walked a thin line with this film, risking disappointing Zatoichi fans and his own fan base, as well as tarnishing the memory of Shintaro Katsu.  In the end, ZATOICHI was Kitano's biggest hit to date.  So he must have pleased somebody. ½ - JB

Zatoichi: Blind Swordsman     The Stuff You Gotta Watch


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"Just like soccer basically is 22 men and 1 ball, so is Zatoichi basically a blind man, a sword cane and lots of bad guys."
   --- star and director Takeshi Kitano

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