The swordfights were duels without confrontation. In a normal swordfight, one opponent attacks, the other parries and counterattacks. The director wanted these swordfights to be different, with one blow enough to win. It was an unseen form of combat.
—Tatsumi Nikamoto, Master Swordsman, interview, Zatôichi
In Japan, cops and yakuzas are the only two occupations that deal with death or violence daily. The general Japanese citizens are not allowed to carry a gun or get involved with violence every day.
—Takeshi “Beat” Kitano, interview, Sonatine
Legendarily soft-spoken during interviews, Takeshi Kitano sits uncomfortably to answer translated questions for the new double-DVD release of The Blind Swordsman: Zatôichi/Sonatine, he speaks with his usual mix of affects—slowly but also curtly, as if the answers are both obscure and obvious. Enormously popular back home, the filmmaker remains something of an acquired taste in the West. Though his work might be termed “generic”—in Japan, he’s much loved as a television comedian, in the States, he’s best known for his yakuza movies—they also consistently and quite brilliantly subvert the conventions by which they are structured.
Kitano’s most recent film released in the U.S., Zatôichi won Stateside praise for its invention and oddness. This ground is established immediately: at film’s start, when the titular blind swordsman (also called Ichi) passes a field where workers are tilling. A long shot shows their bodies in motion and their hoes striking the ground—ticka-ticka-ticka—as these rhythms are picked up by Keiichi Suzuki’s innovative percussive score. For a few odd, precious moments, the universe seems in sync.
Such moments recur throughout this peculiarly structured and ridiculously violent film, based on Kan Shimozawa’s legendary swordsman and masseur, hero of over 30 movies and television shows (this even though it’s clear to anyone that, as one opponent notes, “You’re not just a masseur”). Kitano’s new incarnation for the film, bleached blond, bears the 57-year-old auteur’s own remarkable stamp: this Ichi is stoic but delightful, stern but antic, prone to giggling and possessed of Kitano’s trademark twitch and deadpan ferocity. As he shapes the character and his environs to suit his own proclivities—stylized violence and an ensemble of quirky characters—Kitano conjures a wholly imaginative film, thrilling and moving.
Zatôichi arrives in a feudal Japanese village where several souls are in turmoil. Their various tragedies serve as fragments in an overarching revenge saga, one that will also entangle a masterless ronin and dedicated husband, Hattori (Tadanobu Asano), who takes a job with a local gangster (his early, brief encounter with Ichi ensures they will battle by film’s end). Ichi’s first appearance shows him slicing up a couple of bullies who try to steal his cane (which sheaths his sword), with utter efficiency and vicious elegance.
Aside from such displays, Ichi’s primary function is to help those in need. Aunt O-Ume (Michiyo Ogusu) invites him to stay at her home (at night, this wholly honorable masseur massages her creaking back, and despite a brief shot suggesting the intimacy of such activity, you’re assured that he does only that). When she mentions that her nephew Shinkichi (Gadarukanaru Taka) is addicted to gambling, he makes the amiable, if confused young man his next project. And this intersects with another, more profound mission, in which Ichi helps sibling geishas O-Kinu (Yuko Daike) and O-Sei (Daigoro Tachibana), in their pursuit of vengeance against the gangsters who murdered their parents 10 years ago. Flashbacks show that this trauma led to the kids’ destitution and prostitution by the transvestite brother, O-Sei, in order to ensure their survival. O-Kinu turns her own distress into a thirst for retribution, and her relentless focus is stunning, even as her brother’s charms are formidable. He’s no victim in need of rescue; he’s happy with who he is.
With scenes arranged out of chronological order (Kitano refers to the organization as “cubism”), the film’s narrative connections require some (brilliantly rewarded) effort on your part. Events come together as they might in Ichi’s own mind, such that characters’ relations become more complicated and opaque, more surprising. Zatôichi final scene constitutes its own revelation. A magnificent dance number by a fusion tap troupe called the Stripes (who also played the percussive farmers), appears on a stage with a curtain, soon joined by the film’s characters, all smiling, dancing, triumphing. It’s an awesomely wacky finale, at once wholly incongruous and perfectly sublime.
Similarly offbeat and wholly in sync, Sonatine - which Kitano calls his own “lost masterpiece”—reveals what might be considered the artist’s earlier meditations on the same theme, that is, the simultaneous theatricality and everydayness of violence. A classically tough yakuza film, Sonatine again features Takeshi’s signature violence—brutal, quick, surprising—as well as the sort of contemplative pacing common to most of the director’s non-comedic work. In this instance, gangster Aniki Murakawa (Kitano) must go into hiding following some particularly feudish trouble (he’s instructed to intercede in one gang rivalry, and so his own life is endangered). “The situation is sticky in Okinawa,” observes a colleague, and so it’s a good time to move on.
But in tracing Murakawa’s movement—isolated even among his men, tentative and even vulnerable with a young woman who admires his seeming virility and menace—the film becomes something new, an examination of the ways violent men understand one another and themselves, the peculiar rhythms of loyalty and distrust that bind them. Ensconced in a beach house, the men wile away their hours playing games, including one where they dance and pose like sumo wrestlers, inside a small ring they’ve drawn in the sand. Here, and again in another scene where they play “war,” complete with cover of night and brilliant firecrackers, their play underlines their self-inflation and artifice, as if anticipating the more elaborate staginess that ends Zatôichi.