Takeshi Kitano was cajoled into making Zatoichi by a strip-club owner. Chieko Saito was a longtime friend of Shintaro Katsu, the legendary actor who played Zatoichi in 26 films, from 1962 to 1989. When Katsu passed away in 1997, Saito was determined to continue his legacy (and secure her own interests as owner of the Zatoichi copyright). She befriended and eventually persuaded a reluctant Kitano to create a new installment of the popular film series.
It’s a good thing he acquiesced. Perennially popular as an actor (known as Beat Takeshi), Kitano’s directorial efforts have been erratic since his brilliant Hana-bi (1997). Dolls (2002) was too self-consciously arty and allegorical, and Brother (2000), an Americanized version of his hard-hitting gangster films, lacked the extremes of pathos and whimsy that balanced the explosive violence in his earlier films. Though both Dolls and Brother targeted an international audience, it is Zatoichi, Kitano’s version of a homegrown favorite, that is now generating excitement overseas. Despite its period setting, it’s a return to the combination of slapstick humor, dramatic intrigue, and sudden bloodshed that distinguished his early efforts. In other words, it’s vintage Kitano.
Set in post-feudal Japan, Zatoichi is the story of a wandering blind masseur who is also a master swordsman. Katsu’s original was, typically, a comic variation on the standard samurai drama: Zatoichi was highly skilled with his walking-stick-cum-sword, and a garrulous gambler of flexible morality. Kitano’s version holds true to the character’s everyman qualities, but recasts him in signature Beat Takeshi mode: taciturn, enigmatic… and blonde. Kitano decided to keep his recently bleached coif, not only to differentiate himself from Katsu’s Zatoichi, but also to give the film a more contemporary edge. The clash of period dress and shocking white-blond hair is the first indication that this Zatoichi might not be an entirely faithful reproduction.
Zatoichi arrives in a town menaced by two warring gangs. One gang has recently hired an ace ronin (Tadanobu Asano). A vestige of a more honorable system of warfare, he is a hired assassin under duress, trying to make enough money to pay for treatment of his ailing wife (Yui Natsukawa). Also new in town are two geisha (Daigoro Tachibana and Yuuko Daike). The orphan children of a family executed by the town’s most powerful gang, they prey on unwitting customers, hoping to avenge their parents’ murders. Zatoichi soon finds himself in the middle of all these conflicts when he catches the gangsters who run the gambling hall trying to cheat him. Fierce and swift, his wrath results in an utterly definitive massacre that initiates the film’s ascent to its penultimate, revelatory crescendo.
Indeed, the movie is structured almost like a piece of music. Keichi Suzuki’s spare, modern score, ambient sounds, and the cadence of character movements conspire to create musical interludes outside of the film’s narrative. In one scene, Zatoichi passes by a field in which the scraping of the peasants’ hoes and footsteps falls into a cheerful rhythm with the background music. During a storm, orchestrated raindrops form the accompaniment for a group of tap-dancing farmers. Like Kitano’s blonde hair, such moments remind us that this Zatoichi is not simply a period film intent on recapturing an “authentic” past, but a “remake,” one step removed. Rather than simply paying homage to the original series, this latest installment showcases its own artifice and theatricality.
Also embedded in these interludes is an appreciation for traditional Japanese agrarian society. The camera lingers on simple details: rain pooling in a barrel, a vegetable farmer shouldering her hoe, a scarecrow-like straw figure with fertility offerings of food and flowers at its feet. The appeal of revisiting an institution like Zatoichi is thus twofold: not only are we reminded of a more innocent time in filmmaking, we also return to a simpler, idealized period of history.
Adding another layer of nostalgia, the narrative is repeatedly interrupted by flashbacks. Unlike the musical and pastoral scenes, which are by turns quirky and meditative, these segments are at times gratuitous and over-long. While flashbacks to the geishas’ and ronin’s pasts illuminate their motivations, others, like a particularly bloody fight in which Zatoichi single-handedly dispatches eight or nine assailants during a rainstorm, do little to improve our understanding of Zatoichi (we already know he’s a badass), and seem only speciously linked to the storyline. It’s raining, therefore Zatoichi remembers the last time he hacked and sliced his way through a sea of bodies, leaving the ground aesthetically stained with their blood. It’s a jaw-dropping action sequence, but it feels like a loose end—who were those foolhardy men? And what do they have to do with Zatoichi’s current predicament?
Perhaps rationality is too much to ask of what is, essentially, an action flick. And Zatoichi‘s finale confounds expectations once again. Following the plot’s climactic pair of revelations is another surprise: a shameless, all-singing, all-dancing tap revue. Like a celebratory curtain call, it features the whole village shuckin’ and jivin’ to exuberant music. Choreographed by Hideboh, of Japanese tap group The Stripes, the sequence is joyous, bright, and completely fake, the culmination of Kitano’s symphony of ambient sound and incongruous moments. Departing from the dusty realism of the period sets and costumes, it emphasizes the film’s historical distance from the original and the performative nature of its re-enactment. And most remarkably, it does so without ruining the story. In the end, Zatoichi is not homage, remake or update. It’s entertainment, pure and simple.