Wednesday, August 18, 2004


* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 August 2004 at Loews Harvard Square #3 (first-run)

I found myself half-wondering during Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi whether this was supposed to be a semi-parodic remake. Not full-out, but some elements seemed just a little exaggerated (and others greatly so). Having only seen one entry in the original series, I'm really not equipped to judge this movie's relation to its forebears; on its own, I found it an enjoyable movie that could have been great except for one large flaw.

That flaw is the blood. Not that there's too much - when the various yakuza, ronin, and other swordsmen pull out their blades and start going after each other, the red stuff is bound to fly. However, instead of going to the experts and KNB (or whatever the Japanese equivelent is), Kitano opts for digital effects which are quite unsatisfying. Digital blood doesn't stick to people and surfaces, and it doesn't ever seem to jet from the bodies at the right angle or speed. There are some scenes when it doesn't even look as good as the Pepto-Bismol that Klingons had coursing through their veins in Star Trek VI.

I've read that this was a deliberate decision by writer/director/editor/star Takeshi Kitano, and for all I know, it was a great artistic success in Japan. The crowd in Cambridge last night, however, laughed every time it happened. It's partly that reaction that made me wonder whether Takeshi was going for comedy; it so thoroughly undercut almost every action beat. It had me reacting like "whoa, that was bada... (giggle)" a lot, and not like I had with Gozu two nights earlier. Gozu served up black comedy that shocked and amused with its audacity and perversity, while Zatoichi's fake blood just had me laughing at a shortcoming.

It's a shame, because the rest of the movie is, well, great. Kitano displays a warmth as Zatoichi that I don't recall seeing from him in other movies, though my exposure has been somewhat limited. The rest of the cast is good, too, expressive but pulling back from the overacting that can plague Asian films, especially when it comes time for comic relief.

The story template for a Zatoichi movie is straightforward, and Kitano doesn't deviate far from it: Blind masseur and gambler Ichi (Kitano, credited as "Beat" Takeshi) arrives in a town after dispatching some highwaymen who thought to give the blind guy trouble (only to wind up learning that Ichi's cane contains a wickedly sharp sword which he wields with gruesome skill, his four other senses heightened). The town, of course, has yakuza issues, and other recent arrivals threaten to make things worse. When the yakuza threaten the woman who gives Ichi a place to sleep, Ichi makes them deeply regret it in the seconds before they die.

Among the arrivals are the ronin Hattori and his sickly wife. Hattori is a man of honor who dislikes the yakuza-bodyguard work he takes, but does it professionally so that he can afford medicines for his wife. In broad daylight, he may be a match for Ichi. Also recently arrived are a pair of geisha who early on establish that they're on a quest for bloody vengeance for something that happened when they were children. Kitano establishes these characters quickly, using extended flashbacks to show us their backstory.

The sights and sounds of this village are enjoyable, as well. Where previous Zatoichi flicks were sort of B-movies, cranking out three or four a year at times, Kitano has a decent budget and invests it in solid-looking sets. There's a tone of whimsy to much of the music, with the farmers in the background occasionally working in sync with it. And the rousing tap-dancing festival number that closes the movie is so delightful that one can forgive its complete incongruity.

The action, up until the point of someone actually being cut and spewing fakey CGI blood, is well choreographed. Some of the blades must be CGI as well, or else a few scenes of yakuza and ninjas getting run through involved some very real trips to the trauma ward.

Supposedly, Takashi Miike was considered as the director at one point in production, which may have produced the coolest movie ever: Miike directing Kitano in a bloody samurai/yakuza epic starring a beloved character. Maybe Miike wouldn't have gone for the "real fake blood", either, and maybe he would have just veered into bizarre territory

Kitano does a bang-up job, though, except for the blood. I must sound like a sicko for harping on this, but this one flaw is what keeps Zatoichi from being one of the year's best, as opposed to one of the year's very good.

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