Movie review: 'The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi'

4 stars (out of 4)

A masterpiece of wry violence and stylized mayhem, "The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi" turns loose one of Japan's most brilliant film auteurs, Takeshi Kitano, on one of its most enduring pop legends: the movie myth of Zatoichi, the fat, blind 19th Century masseur and swordsman who slashed his way through dozens of wildly popular films in the 1960s and '70s.

Kitano wrote and directed this reprise, and he also plays Zatoichi, the part immortalized by chunky, likably non-charismatic star Shintaro Katsu.

Kitano--who stars under his usual actor's moniker "Beat" Takeshi, doesn't play Zatoichi at all the way Katsu played him. Katsu's Zatoichi, one of the great series action characters of all time, was deceptively sloppy-looking and humble: a shambling, lost-looking near-doofus who kept exaggerating his blindness by head-jerks and blank stares which suddenly gave way, when he was bullied or challenged, to the whirling expertise with which he could kill one or a dozen foes. Kitano's Zatoichi is more tranquil, bemused, samurai-streetwise--and, even though he's supposedly blind, he always has an air of sizing everyone up. Watching this Zatoichi, you never doubt for a moment that he can kill everybody in the room.

Here, Zatoichi sips saki and trades blows with an odd assortment of gamblers, geishas and gang lords in a place terrorized by the heartless Ginzo gang, a besieged town that reminds you of Kurosawa's great "Yojimbo."

As with "Yojimbo" the plot here is so formidably complex, you'd better stay alert throughout. But the major characters include the revenge-obsessed brother and sister cross-dressing geisha team O-Sei and O-Kinu (Daigoro Tachibana and Yuko Daike), the ultra-deadly swordsman and bodyguard (or "yojimbo") Hattori (Tadanobu Asano), Zatoichi's kindly hostess, Aunt O-Ume (Michiyo Ogusu), the aging, fearsome gang boss Ginzou (Ittoku Kishibe) and the local tavern owner (Akira Emoto), a Walter Brennan-like coot concealing a secret or three.

Kitano here doesn't give you the same kick as the best of the old Zatoichi movies. His action isn't quite as fierce, his style less classic, his backgrounds less picturesque. (If you want to sample the old series at its peak, try 1970's superb "Zatoichi vs. Yojimbo," costarring Toshiro Mifune and directed by Kihachi Okamoto.)

But Kitano, as always, creates a doom-laden, dryly humorous, deadpan-compassionate mood that utterly absorbs. He mixes the usual, explosive samurai movie swordplay with his own puckish variations on kabuki and Kurosawa, and his characters are far more devious, driven or multilayered than their old genre counterparts.

This "Zatoichi" is all of a piece with Kitano's yakuza crime classics "Fireworks" and "Sonatine," with their Bogartesque, deep noir sense of a seemingly godless world ruled by violence, greed and the criminal code. Samurai movies, whether by Katsu or Kurosawa, usually had a lustier, more buoyant quality and so does this one.

But it also steeps you in cynicism and omnipresent danger--which it finally dispels with a marvelously slaphappy, out-of-period dance climax that will leave any reasonably susceptible audience in a state of slaphappy bliss.

When a great genre movie wins you, it's usually with a mixture of the pleasantly predictable and the excitingly unexpected. And that's what Kitano offers in "The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi": an action epic for cognoscenti. If you want to feel like Quentin Tarantino gone Zen, check it out.

"The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi"

Directed and written by Takeshi Kitano; based on a short story by Kan Shimozawa; photographed by Katsumi Yanagijima; edited by Kitano, Yoshinori Ota; production designed by Norihiro Isoda; music by Keiichi Suzuki; produced by Masayuki Mori, Tsunehisa Saito. In Japanese, with English subtitles. A Miramax release; opens Friday at the landmark Theatre. Running time: 1:55. MPAA rating: R (strong, stylized, bloody violence)

Zatoichi - "Beat" Takeshi (Kitano)
Hattori, the Bodyguard - Tadanobu Asano
Aunt O-Ume - Michiyo Ogusu
Hattori's Wife - Yui Natsukawa
Shinkichi - Gadarukanaru Taka
O-Sei and O-Kinu, the Geishas - Daigoro Tachibana, Yuuko Daike

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