Takeshi Kitano, he the man—maybe a bit too much so in The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi.
After appearing a few years ago in Nagisa Oshima’s revisionist samurai film Taboo, Japan’s reigning king of all media embarked on his first period piece. Lushly produced and overly self-regarding, The Blind Swordsman appropriates the most successful action series in Japanese movies. First introduced in a 1962 feature, the apparently harm-less, lovably bumbling itinerant masseur known as Zatoichi (Blind Ichi) cut a bloody swath through a Meiji Restoration demimonde of gang bosses, gamblers, and samurai goon-squads.
The sightless swordsman proved bigger than Godzilla. The first Zatoichi film spawned 23 sequels through 1973, followed by a television series, with Shintaro Katsu enjoying a quarter-century run in the title role. Not nearly as humble as Katsu’s stout, bowlegged Ichi, Kitano’s model is another sort of monster—he’s weirdly giggly rather than warm and cuddly, oddly condescending as opposed to stoical and suffering. He’s also something of a dandy. Where the original, ultra-low-caste Ichi concealed his lethal weapon as a rustic, unpainted cane, the new model sports a blood-red lacquered scabbard, not to mention a dazzling platinum dye-job.
Less outrageous in its genre calisthenics than its Miramax stablemates the Kill Bills, The Blind Swordsman—which won audience prizes at last year’s Venice and Toronto film festivals—is basically a comic, choreographed gore-fest. Its setting is a treacherous world that not only provides innumerable instances of innocence despoiled but also allows the essentially humorous Kitano ample license to revel in what he dryly terms “preposterous” behavior. Indeed, the 57-year-old superstar deserves credit for directing himself in such a physically demanding performance—not to mention acting with his eyes closed.
However “sight impaired,” as the subtitles put it, this Blond Ichi is something of a card. Not nearly as abrasive or volatile as the standard Kitano persona, the masseur prankishly paints eyes on his lids as a gag. And not quite a loner, he deigns to team up with a dumb gambler (the wonderfully named Guadalcanal Taka) and two fake geisha (one of them, in a nice touch, doubly fake) to slice, dice, impale, and otherwise hack up the ninja hordes.
More densely edited and less classical in its camera placement than Kitano’s previous productions, The Blind Swordsman is a reasonably good Kurosawa pastiche. But overburdened with convoluted flashbacks and interpolated gags, and generally lacking a dynamic sense of cutting, the movie doesn’t possess the master’s sardonic brio. Nor does The Blind Swordsman have the idiosyncrasy of Kitano’s yakuza flicks, including the misunderstood tough-guy comedy Kikujiro. As playful as Kitano’s Ichi is, he doesn’t appear to actually be playing with anybody—this is his show and there’s an off-putting and disappointingly posh quality to the proceedings.
Still, The Blind Swordsman scarcely lacks for incident. Kitano orchestrates a good many CGI-enhanced spurting bloodbaths (one in a simulated monsoon) and some nice paper-house demolition jobs before the final showdown. The emphatic sound design culminates in Kitano’s best joke—he updates the folk performance that ends Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, drafting a neo-Kabuki, clog-dancing troupe called the Stripes to send his cast tapping into the sunset.