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A 'Swordsman' to Watch

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2004; Page WE34

HAVE PITY for the well-trained ninjas who think they can destroy Zatoichi.

In "The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi," they come at this unassuming, gray-haired old masseur with everything: sticks, knives, swords, flying kicks, edge-of-the-hand chops. They corner him, attack him in numbers. And every time, Zatoichi leaves them in felled piles like chopped bamboo.

Takeshi Kitano, writer, director, lead actor, does it all and does it well. (Miramax Films)

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As Zatoichi, the legendary blind hero of Kan Shimozawa's novels, Takeshi Kitano (also the writer-director) takes up where all those western gunslingers left off. He's the wandering stranger who comes to town and efficiently rids it of bullies. He doesn't need guns. His weapons are low-tech: A stick sometimes, or a sword; but mainly his composure and the knowledge that his opponents constantly misjudge him. He teaches them otherwise.

And boy does the blood gush. It comes in geysers, like something out of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." But it's so over-the-top, you can't take it seriously. This is whimsical bloodletting. And after these bursts of cartoonish violence, all is calm. The movie takes its breath and waits for the next bunch of martial arts suckers to get theirs.

There's more to "Zatoichi" than fighting and the red stuff, however. Kitano, the actor and director of such arthouse cult films as "Tokyo Eyes" and "Fireworks," has always had a mischievous, yet highly restrained, sense of humor. That implicit playfulness starts right away, as we see an opening shot of peasants in the fields. (The story's set in 19th-century Japan.) Suddenly we realize they are clicking and digging their hoes to the rhythm of the music on the soundtrack. We're being set up for fantasy and comic book heroics.

The story is familiar to anyone who has seen anything from Asian chop-socky flicks to Akira Kurosawa's "Yojimbo."

Zatoichi is a restless soul who makes money as a masseur and gambler. When we meet him, he's pounding and kneading the back of a respectable female friend (Michiyo Ogusu), who wants Zatoichi to watch after her gambling-crazy nephew (Gadarukanaru Taka). The town is currently roiling with gang wars, as various families duke it out for power in this town. And inevitably, Zatoichi becomes personally involved, in this case with a brother and sister who are determined to avenge the slaughter of their parents. He's also heading for a big showdown with Hattori (Tadanobu Asano), a mercenary "ronin" who works for an evil ganglord.

The story, as in most of Kitano's films, is almost superfluous. The active ingredient is Kitano's presence. And those bursts of violence, which come after subtle scenes of quiet and calm. Speaking of surprise, look for a stick-and-dance musical number that will have the "Riverdance" cloggers watching with admiration. And while Kitano-the-performer fights with his seemingly endless array of enemies, Kitano the filmmaker makes sure that everything is beautiful, from the wonderful colors and passing tableaux to the intricate fighting choreography. This blind swordsman, you realize, has vision to spare.

THE BLIND SWORDSMAN: ZATOICHI (R, 116 minutes) -- Contains intense violence and some sexual content. In Japanese with subtitles. At Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

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