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Review: Zatôichi (2003)

Directed by: Takeshi Kitano | 116 minutes | action, drama, adventure | Actors: Beat Takeshi, Tadanobu Asano, Michiyo Ogusu, Yui Natsukawa, Guadalcanal Taka, Daigoro Tachibana, Yuko Daike, Ittoku Kishibe, Saburo Ishikura,

Japanese actor-director has revived a popular Japanese phenomenon with his latest film. Zatoichi is a legend in Kitano’s homeland. Numerous films and television episodes have been made about the blind, gambling masseur. Just as the character was on the verge of being forgotten, Kitano breathes new life into Zatoichi. With the popularity of Martial Arts and samurai films like “Kill Bill” and “The Last Samurai”, Kitano decided to jump on this hype. His contribution to martial arts films comes in the form of “Zatoichi”.

Director Kitano’s productions are known for their somber undertone, unexpected outbursts of violence and slapstick humor. “Zatoichi” also falls into that category. However, it must be said that this is much lighter and lighter than Kitano’s previous work. There is plenty to laugh about in this samurai movie. The director manages to strike a somewhat strange balance between drama, and comedy. If humor is rather central in some scenes, then in an unexpected moment it is completely turned upside down by a brutal, grotesque fight scene where the fountains of blood color the screen red. This makes the print feel unbalanced at times. But these seemingly bizarre transitions characterize Kitano’s films. Critics are usually very positive about Japan’s most famous contemporary filmmaker. The fact that Kitano is a talented person is evident from the fact that in addition to directing, he also takes the lead role.

Kitano plays Zatoichi, the blind masseur. His acting is very good. The role of taciturn man is perfect for him. The metamorphosis from taciturn, cheerful masseur to ice-cold, cold-blooded murderer is convincingly portrayed by the acting director. Kitano has a special acting style and on-screen chemistry, he is not the most gifted actor but his charisma and energy make up for his limitations. It’s a pleasure to see him in a role like this. Even when he acts with his eyes closed, Zatoichi is blind, his charisma remains. The balance between and tragedy in his character is well balanced. Throughout the film, small clues are given about Zatoichi’s past. He is not a regular masseur. This is evident from the short, flashy and quickly edited fight scenes. Despite his visual handicap, Zatoichi effortlessly kills entire gangs. Slowly you will learn how he got that gift.

What “Zatoichi” does well is in portraying ancient Japan. The atmosphere is greatly affected by the beautiful costumes, scenery and music. What also sets the apart from other samurai prints is the view of the entire culture of these Japanese knights. Where a film like “The Last Samurai” was almost an idolization of the samurai, “Zatoichi” pierces that illusion. The so-called noble swordsmen were only human. With their good and bad sides. The emphasis in this print is more on the bad side. Most samurai are cowardly, perverted and selfish. Respect for their opponents is not reflected in their behavior. Their code of honor, the Bushido, is not observed by most men. Kitano highlights the dark, human side of the samurai. Very refreshing.

Some other characters linger in caricatures, such as a village idiot, bluffing dork, or a strict aunt. There is little character in these characters. This was deliberately done by Kitano, in order to bring some humor into the picture. “Zatoichi” has therefore become Kitano’s lightest and most accessible film. The atmosphere is not as heavy as in previous work such as “Sonatina” or “Dolls”. Towards the end of the print, the atmosphere becomes a bit colder, and then ends in a completely strange and bizarre way. You can say whatever you want about the ending, but it will stick with you. “Zatoichi” is not Kitano’s best film. But his most accessible work to date.

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