Nobody can make you like this stuff if you don't want to. So although there's no doubt that "The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi" is the summer's most rousing action picture, it's also hard as nails, bloody as battle, full of slicings, choppings, piercings (not of ear, navel or septum) and very, very Japanese.
Forewarned is forearmed. Therefore, all those not in favor, please depart now and read of uplift and comedy and the benevolence of man in other reviews in this great newspaper. Those of you who are left, all you Ichi-freaks, you Magna-obsessives, you Lone Wolf and Cub addicts, you, you, you kimono wearers, you Asahi-jc.com visitors, you, you actual Japanese even: Boy, is this baby a hoot.
I suppose the big news here is two new elements to the Zatoichi oeuvre. The first is the coming of Takeshi Kitano, and the second is the coming of digital technology. The former results in a smart, tough, brilliant movie by a world-renowned filmmaker who invests the full measure of his intelligence into the project; the second results in lots of really cool blood-and-guts stuff.
Of Kitano, the situation is analogous to the arrival of a new James Bond. As Sean Connery was James Bond, all who followed were measured against him. And as Shintaro Katsu was the blind swordsman Zatoichi in 26 films from 1963 to 1989, any who come after will be measured against him. So Kitano, who not only directs but writes and stars, is up against a legend.
A knowledgeable friend has called the 26 Zatoichis the best action series in film history, and if that's not right, it's certainly in the top five. Katsu's Ichi, however, was a burly bear of a man, unshaven, rambunctious, funny, almost a comedian. His character, a masseur by trade, taught himself swordsmanship and, though blind, became extraordinarily proficient. (That's the conceit you must buy to enter the film. )
Kitano comes to the movie with a brilliant pedigree. A onetime stand-up comedian who separates himself by different names between writer-director (Takeshi Kitano) and performer ("Beat" Takeshi), he exploded on the world scene in 1989 with his film "Violent Cop," a yakuza melodrama so astonishing it went global. He has followed with a slew of highly regarded films, some marked by his trademark violence, others more gentle.
His Zatoichi is more contained, more cerebral than Katsu's. He's in some ways more American, almost a Clint Eastwood man-with-no-name guy, a cool killer who never gets involved with people in a big way. Where Katsu's Zatoichi blended in wherever he went, Kitano marks his as different from the start: To begin, he's platinum blond (and nobody ever says: Hey, what's a blond guy doing here?), his robe is dark and forbidding, and his cane-sword (this is a katana without a tsuba, for you cognoscenti) is bright red. Everybody knows who he is; everybody steers clear, except those who want to match blade speed with him.
There's a lot of blade speed, and a lot of consequent blood spray. That's the second innovation: Digital technology allows Kitano to show scenes of mayhem far more realistically than in the samurai pics of old. Where in the '60s and '70s the arterial spray had to be kept thin to fizz out under air pressure, looking more like strawberry soda pop than actual plasma, Kitano gets a nice, heavy feel to his digitized red stuff. It seems to pulsate out of the many, many wounds like crimson mercury, occupying space, subject to gravity. And the digitizing also enables him to paint sword points blasting through the other side of the epidermis, or sundered limbs falling spastically to the earth after Ichi has separated them from their owners. Is this an advance? Well, in samurai technology, I think you must say yes, it is.
As for story, it's pretty much the usual samurai plot pattern: lone swordsman in corrupt town, revenge and/or justice, secret bosses, yakuza goons by the multitude, slapstick, rural Japan in the 19th century, obsession with face, sex, slaughter. Some gambits: Two traveling geisha are hunting for the outlaws who murdered their family many years ago. A drunken reprobate turns out to be the big yakuza boss. A young samurai pines for the honor of fighting the old champion -- whether he lives or dies is of little consequence; the honor of the fair fight is enough for a lifetime.
It's a little of "Yojimbo," a little of "Sanjuro," a little of "Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance." I could sum it up more precisely for you, but really, what would be the point? If you don't get it, you don't get it.
But to this familiar manipulation of classic themes, Kitano adds something new and unexpected: a toe-tapping musical number. Now really, how many samurai musicals have you seen? Hey, warriors, let's put on a show! For some reason known only to Kitano, after the story proper is over he wants to send you out on a higher note, so he brings in all the stars, a chorus line, a driving musical score and sets everybody to tap-dancing in those wooden sandals and kimonos. You've never seen anything like it, I guarantee you.
The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (116 minutes, in Japanese with subtitles, at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle) is rated R for extreme violence.