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With: "Beat" Takeshi, Tadanobu Asano, Yui Natsukawa, Michiyo Ookusu, Gadarukanaru Taka, Yuuko Daike, Daigoro Tachibana, Ittoku Kishibe, Saburo Ishikura, Akira Emoto
Written by: Takeshi Kitano, based on novels by Kan Shimozawa
Directed by: Takeshi Kitano
MPAA Rating: R for strong stylized bloody violence
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 116
Date: 09/02/2003

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2004)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Blade in Full

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The master Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano made his reputation in the United States with his violent, whisper-to-a-scream gangster films like Sonatine, Fireworks and Brother. His most dedicated fans also know about his softer side, shown in warm, almost sentimental works such as A Scene at the Sea, Kids Return, Kikujiro and the extraordinary Dolls, which has yet to secure a distributor here.

None of this prepares us for The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi. Even if you've seen some of the classic 1960s-era Japanese films (many of which are available on DVD from Home Vision) about a blind masseuse and accomplished swordsman, you're at a disadvantage.

Based loosely on the novels by Kan Shimozawa as well as the original films, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi begins normally enough. The rock-steady, stoic actor Kitano (known in an acting capacity as "Beat" Takeshi) appears as the bleach-blond title character, eyes glued shut, head cocked to one side as if to listen to the world. He's taunted by a band of would-be robbers and he vanquishes them with very little effort, barely registering a hint of an expression.

But as the film rolls along, it starts to move with a quirky pulse. For one thing, a handful of workers in a field begin to make rhythmic beats with their clanging tools, not unlike the Broadway sensation Stomp!

For another thing, Kitano's version of Zatoichi is no longer the reluctant warrior who gets drawn into battle only out of necessity. This Zatoichi is more than willing to kick a little behind if he's in the mood. For the fight scenes, Kitano apparently did not bother to send his actors to swordfighting school as Quentin Tarantino did with Kill Bill. Instead, he employs some (deliberately?) terrible CGI effects to illustrate his severed heads and pierced torsos.

But the strangest thing of all comes during the finale. And, no, it's not an escalated bloody battle with the fate of the world at stake; it's a full-fledged musical number!

Like Jacques Tati, the only other world filmmaker to which he can be appropriately compared, Kitano seems to have grown tired of his trademark screen persona, the humorless gangster, and has deliberately tried to undermine it with this new film. At first, I found myself disappointed with The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, but it grows on you if you let it.

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi shows a bolder directorial style as well. Kitano has loosened up, using stronger color schemes and relying less on the shock value of his editing. It's almost as if Kitano learned a thing or two during Brother, his foray into American filmmaking three years ago. Could he be sending a message to Hollywood, letting them know that he's ready to play nice? Or is he just thumbing his nose at everyone?

With his deadpan mug, it's difficult to tell, but who cares when we're having this much fun.

DVD Details: As annoying as they are most of the time, Miramax sometimes gets it right. Along with The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, they have released a "lost" masterpiece by Takeshi Kitano, Sonatine. Made in 1993, the film was released in U.S. theaters in 1998 thanks to Quentin Tarantino, but it has languished in video neverland ever since. Sonatine shows Takeshi at his stoic best, as a gangster who hides out at a beach resort, doing very little for the whole middle section of the film. It's an astonishingly funny, violent and vibrant work, arguably his best work to date. Both films come with a few extras, notably interviews, a behind-the-scenes special on Zatoichi and a Tarantino intro for Sonatine.

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