Have Blade Will Travel 

Kitano's blind swordsman could use more cutting edge

Kitano's blind swordsman could use more cutting edge

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi

Dir.: Takeshi Kitano

R, 116 min.

Now showing at Regal Green Hills 16

The plot points are elemental, if not archetypal: a rural farming village is terrorized by rival clans when several strangers arrive, each harboring a secret agenda. A postmodern cousin of Kurosawa and Leone, actor/director Takeshi Kitano's The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi reimagines the Japanese icon, a "sight-impaired" masseur whose remaining senses are honed to razor-sharp acuity. The original Zatoichi, Katsu Shintaro, slashed and hacked his way through more than 20 features and a long-running television series. And though Kitano qualifies as something of an acquired taste among Western audiences, his darkly comic update has proven not only a massive hit in Japan, but also a festival favorite, garnering audience awards at both Venice and Toronto.

Not surprisingly, Zatoichi is, at least on the surface, one of Kitano's most straightforward efforts to date. For extended stretches, the director curbs his more anarchic tendencies, but gradually the plot begins to fracture and fissure. The narrative hopscotches back and forth in time with little apparent motivation, while several scenes seem included solely for poetic impact. Even the many action sequences register as oddly hyper-stylized. Violence is swift, often unexpected and decisive, yet the resultant CGI-enhanced blood showers serve as much as aesthetic devices as signifiers of actual carnage.

The final showdown between Zatoichi and a seemingly invincible bodyguard is effectively preordained, but after carefully setting his numerous plot threads in motion, Kitano surrenders the film to layered digressions and meandering ellipses. The director is fascinated with narrative dead spots, those moments when almost anything can happen. The film's most rewarding touches are also its most idiosyncratic: several peasants' rhythmic fieldwork blending with the soundtrack, a hapless samurai apprentice circling a farmhouse in an uncomprehending frenzy, a geisha's slow, languid dance morphing from present to past and back again. Significantly, Zatoichi's climactic battle is soon upstaged by a riotous clog-dancing celebration—and then a clinching pratfall.

In past interviews, Kitano has claimed that he isn't much of a student of film, perhaps explaining his work's distinctive, off-center rhythm, the sense of cinema being created anew. Tellingly, many of the director's comic sequences recall silent-era or slapstick routines. Unencumbered by ingrained, often unquestioned filmic conventions, even Kitano's weakest efforts have a winning freshness. Meanwhile, his strongest features benefit from a formal tension between generic expectations, his background in television and art-cinema flights of surrealism. In both the yakuza idyll Sonatine and the road-movie pastiche Kikujiro, the director's characteristic digressions build almost imperceptibly, accruing considerable emotional heft.

By contrast, Zatoichi registers more as a collection of bits—many of which admittedly are quite wonderful. Kitano portrays the swordsman as a coolly detached "observer," wryly weighing and evaluating the ongoing power struggle from a remove. With something of an enigma at its center, the film's supporting characters often appear more human and fully developed, notably Guadacanal Taka as a blundering gambler cast as Zatoichi's comic sidekick. Unfortunately, much like his onscreen counterpart, the director doesn't appear fully invested in the proceedings. Initiated at the behest of a former mentor, Kitano's entertaining, often dazzling film ultimately lacks the stylistic frisson of his more personal work. If anything, it's not idiosyncratic enough.

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