Takeshi Kitano’s Zatōichi is not only one of the best movies Kitano has made so far, it’s a distillation of everything he’s ever put into his movies. In his time Kitano has moved through grim, nihilistic police-and-yakuza dramas (Violent Cop, Brother, Sonatine, Hana-bi), bittersweet childhood stories (Kids Return, Kikujiro), tender romance (A Scene at the Sea, Dolls), slapstick comedy (Getting Any?) and absurdist farce (Boiling Point). Every single one of his movies has always been identifiably his. Now, in his revisionist take on a character that has been the subject of dozens of previous movies, he does what other directors have typically done with Shakespeare or Chaucer: he takes the material and makes it unmistakably his own.
Zatōichi the Blind Masseur figured into dozens of films adapted from Kan Shimozawa’s novels, released over the span of several decades in Japan. Most of the movies starred Shintaro Katsu in the title role — a wandering masseur with a sword concealed in his cane, righting wrongs wherever he went by simply sticking to his principles (and his weapon). Zatōichi (the “zato” being a titular prefix; his real name being Ichi) is as identifiable a character to the Japanese — both in his look and his manner — as Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp is to most everyone. The interesting thing is that American audiences who aren’t as familiar with the character can start here and probably get just as good an understanding of what makes him tick as they would from any of the original movies (which are all good-to-excellent as well). Kitano was not only able to preserve the spirit of the original character, but channel it through many of his own concerns.
The first scene sets everything up in one stroke. Ichi rests by the roadside, quaffing from a bamboo water bottle. A gang of thugs convince a kid to steal Ichi’s cane away from him. Then they make the mistake of walking over and taunting him about it, at which point Ichi tears them all to shreds. Ichi is patient: he counts on his enemies to make mistakes that he can capitalize on, and he’s attuned his senses to the point where the click of a sword being drawn causes him to respond like a gun’s trigger being pulled. But he also harbors no grudges; he simply wants to get by as best he can by offering what little he has to whomever he meets. If they offer him violence, he’ll pay them back in kind.
Ichi takes up residence with a farming family, splitting wood (in one of the movie’s funniest scenes), and earning money by gambling. It doesn’t take long before he learns of some grim drama unfolding in the village. A powerful yakuza boss (sallow-faced Kitano-gumi Ittoku Kishibe) has started squeezing everyone for money on a daily rather than monthly basis. He also has a new right-hand man, a ronin (Tadanobu Asano), who came into town looking for work to support his sickly wife and finds that he’s skilled enough to be a hired killer but doesn’t quite have the stomach for it. There’s also a wandering pair of murderous geisha girls with a terrible family secret, and the scene where Kitano sets up all of these characters in lightning-like editing strokes is masterful.
Ichi doesn’t dominate every scene, but is instead woven into the larger tapestry of the story as one thread among many. He’s more a catalyst than a hero, but that actually makes things more interesting, not less. At one point Ichi befriends a gambler (who tries vainly to imitate Ichi’s style of dice-playing), which reconnects Ichi back into a larger plot involving the gangsters — but not at once. It’s nice to see a director take his time and set up the world his heroes walk through instead of just have him charge in and mop the floor with the bad guys…and Kitano is nothing if not patient. When the payoff(s) come, they're more than worth waiting for, both in terms of action and character. Kitano wants to take the time to get to know everyone, not just trot them on stage and cut 'em up when they're past their sell-by date.
The best samurai or jidai-geki movies, even the ones designed as broader entertainments, tend to be ones that use their subject as a jumping-off point for larger notions. Zatōichi works to build up a theme — that of people being what they are not — and it isn’t until the very end that the full implications of that theme come out. The movie also makes full use of the whole range of chanbara or sword-movie action clichés — as when Ichi uses someone else's sword as a stepping-stone, or cuts through one man to get to another and then pins both of them to a tree. Ichi is not so much a warrior as a natural force (much like Asano's Shano was in Gojoe); the only time he's ever bested doesn't involve a weapon, which is in itself a hint towards another possible theme.
Kitano’s movies look and feel like no one else’s. He frames shots in ways that often break conventional movie rules — for instance, he likes to show two people talking by showing first one person head-on, and then the next. His camera sits and watches, and then when something happens, it springs like a cat. Kitano does this when the yakuza boss meets up with Asano’s samurai character, putting them nose-to-nose in a little drinking house and then jamming the camera between them in alternate takes. He also uses some masterful extended flashbacks, interleaving them over time with the present to show what shaped his characters.
Kitano got his start in slapstick TV and standup two-man comedy routines (manzai), and almost all of his movies have a streak of genuine humor, sometimes uncomfortably dark. Zatōichi has flat-out slapstick (the wood-cutting scene), pratfalls, double-talk, misunderstandings, and simple visual gags, as when the gambler tries to give Ichi fake eyes and fails miserably. The latter joke is a great example of how the movie works: we get the setup, and then the payoff comes almost by accident so it hits us as a surprise. He also uses elaborate, choreographed violence that’s a far cry from his previous bang-and-you’re-dead approach, but it’s no less startling when it does happen.
Zatōichi is probably Kitano's most accessible and directly enjoyable movie outside of Kids Return (and maybe Getting Any?, depending on your tastes), but he's managed to strike an interesting balance between making something that appeals to popular taste and that fits in with the rest of the films he's made as well. One interesting omission this time around is his long-time musical collaborator, Jo Hisaishi (whose memorable score for Kids Return was among the best I've ever heard). Instead, we have Keiichi Suzuki from the group Moonriders, with a spectacular rhythmic score that's like the drum troupe Kodo crossed with the folks from Stomp. The more you think about it, the more diverse you realize Kitano's movies are, and this is if nothing else further proof of that glorious fact.