Zatoichi (18)

Directed by Takeshi Kitano, Written by Kan Shimozawa
Screening at FACT from 9th-22nd April 2004

Reviewed by Colin Serjent

It is interesting to note that at the same time the FACT is screening Zatoichi (directed by the famous Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano) they are also showing a short season of films by the acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.

Kitano's engrossing film pays homage to the samurai warrior and the victory of the underdog (represented by village and countryside peasants) over rampaging and murderous bandits, in much the same way as Kurosawa did, perhaps most famously in Seven Samurai.

Zatoichi is superbly crafted, full of stunning cinematography, particularly the spectacular sword fights, which produce examples of extreme violence, such as the chopping off of limbs and digitized bloodletting.

Despite the very high body count, it did not leave me with a repellant feeling; it has an almost comic book quality about it.

The story centres on a blind masseur who, to the detriment of his enemies, is a maestro with a sword, which he conceals inside the cane he uses to guide him as he walks along the road in his deceptively shuffling gait.

He continually comes to the rescue of oppressed villagers, who are forced to pay spiraling rents to uncaring and greedy landlords. He is also caught between constant feuding by different clans bidding to take control of villages.

The main thrust of the film is the revenge mission of two geishas (one of whom is a male in disguise) - both dressed in beautifully colored kimonos (the period detail is captured accurately throughout) who are seeking to kill the gangsters who wiped out the rest of their family in an orgy of wanton violence ten years previously.

They were led by a boss called Kuchinawa, who is finally tracked down by Zatoichi, who has befriended the two siblings. Kuchinawa had been masterminding the repression over the local people, while pretending to be a frail bartender.

In a dramatic twist in the tale at the end of the film, Kuchinawa discovers that Zatoichi apparently possesses sight, but moments later he himself is blinded by the rapier sword of his opponent.

"Dying would be too good for you," said Zatoichi, as Kuchinawa realises his dark fate.

In keeping with the offbeat humour prevalent in the film (which includes a memorable scene of four farmers dancing crazily while they plant seeds in the rain) it ends on a bizarre and maybe unnecessary note. The people of the village celebrate their freedom from tyranny with a rousing display of dance routines on a stage, aided by thunderous kodo drumming.

Kitano may not yet rate with Kurosawa but he can be proud of what is without question a great film.