Zatôichi: The Blind Swordsman
I’m a long-time fan of the Zatoichi series of movies starring Shintaro Katsu. This 2003 remake was intended to be something of a reboot for the series. I finally got around to watching it last night.
Replacing the late, great Shintaro Katsu is Takeshi Kitano, aka Beat Takeshi. His bio on IMDB claims he learned comedy singing and dancing during his early years. Sadly, none of this was on display as the titular Zatoichi.
Takeshi barely had any dialogue in the entire movie. The comedy was provided largely by Ichi’s side-kick Shinkichi (played by Gadarukanaru Taka) and was occasionally pretty funny.
It’s hard to watch a Zatoichi movie without making constant comparisons to Shintaro Katsu. How can you not? After some 20-odd movies and 3 tv-series spanning nearly 30 years, Katsu invented the role. He studied the way blind people eat and react to their surroundings. He was a brilliant comedian yet wasn’t always playing the part for cheap laughs. As an actor, Katsu had a tremendous range, a gentle, funny comedian in one scene and an ominous monster in the next. His fighting style was… unique.
So, when I was told to expect “bad CGI blood” in this remake of the venerable series, I thought, “hey, I can put up with bad CGI blood in a Zatoichi movie.” One of my criticisms of the title was that there wasn’t enough blood in the earlier films, but was largely overdone in some of the later movies. Sadly, this was not the worst part of the movie.
Takeshi’s portrayal of Zatoichi was only recognizable during the fighting scenes. For the rest of the movie, he was largely mute, sitting like a piece of wood on the set while the supporting characters acted out the drama around him. By the end of the movie, I felt like this Zatoichi was barely human. He showed some signs of life around the gambling den but that was about the extent of it. There were glimpses of potential. Takeshi’s facial tic was often the only way you knew he was actively paying attention to what was going on around him. And his sword-fighting was impressive. Really though, the best performances were from the supporting cast.
Notably, Tadanobu Asano, who went on to play Genghis Khan in Mongol [Blu-ray], played a ronin with an ailing sister who took up local criminals to pay for her medicine. His screen presence was palpable and he dominated every scene he was in.
I had a hard time finishing this movie. It felt draggy, cutting from one minor character to the next in an effort to flesh out … what, exactly? The supporting cast? To distract you from the immobile blind man in the corner? And the music… Oh the music. Occasionally accompanied by synchronized percussion with farm implements and building tools, the first time I saw it, I thought, “heh, that is kind of cute, though unnecessary”. The second time, I was annoyed. The third time I compared them to a japanese version of “Stomp” or “The Blue Man Group” and the movie (I don’t care if I spoil this for you, I may be saving your life) eventually devolved into a full-on, Bollywood style musical number as the village’s festival cranked up the jams. There was tap-dancing. I am not shitting you.
While this is going on, Takeshi-Zatoichi is mopping up some ninjas a few blocks away so we still didn’t get to see him dance.
* / *****