To watch “Zatoichi” (aka “The Blind Swordsman”) is to understand a little better what Quentin Tarantino was doing in his “Kill Bill” movies. Here’s the blood, the swords, the unexpected humor, the themes of honor and loyalty, oh, and more blood.
You can see why Tarantino likes this sort of movie so much. “Zatoichi” is fun, in an outrageous, violent sort of way, written and directed by Beat Takeshi, one of Japan’s foremost pop-cultural icons. He does it all — comedy, action, drama, TV, movies — but his yakuza films are the best. His willingness to playfully combine styles makes this one, in particular, a treat.
Takeshi plays the title role, an expert swordsman who happens to be blind. He works as a masseur, wandering from village to village, often relying on the kindness of strangers such as the old Aunt O-Ume (Michiyo Ookusu), with whom he boards for a few days, and viewing the world with whimsical, Zen-like detachment.
Meanwhile, the residents of a particular village are plagued with organized crime, the “protection” money now being collected daily rather than monthly. Here another expert swordsman named Hattori (Tadanobu Asano) is seeking work as a bodyguard for the gangs’ bosses, desperate to earn money to save his ailing wife.
Zatoichi encounters two geisha girls named O-Kinu (Yuuko Daike) and O-Sei (Daigoro Tachibana), the latter of whom is actually a boy, but never mind. Their parents were killed by the gangs, and revenge is needed. Zatoichi is not the sort to go actively looking for trouble, not even to settle a score … but when trouble finds him, he can deal with it quite capably, thank you.
It is amusing how little there is of what you would call “fighting” in this film. Most of the combat is over very quickly; “killing” would be a better word for it. The blood, which flows freely, is computer-generated and looks fake — apparently on purpose, to avoid grossing out the audience TOO much. And it is often spilled in entertaining fashion, as with the recurring joke where swordsmen accidentally cut each other while sheathing and unsheathing their weapons.
Takeshi has a fondness for music and rhythm, evidenced by the little bursts of syncopation that find their way into the action, and by the “Stomp”-like dance number — yes, a dance number — that ends the film. The substance of “Zatoichi” is no greater than that of any standard sword-and-revenge flick. But its style is zesty and surprising, and that more than compensates for any ordinariness in its storyline.
B+ (1 hr., 56 min.; Japanese with subtitles; )