THE BLIND SWORDSMAN: ZATOICHI directed and written by Takeshi Kitano from the novel by Kan Shimozawa, produced by Masayuki Mori and Tsunehisa Saitô, with Kitano, Tadanobu Asano, Yui Natsukawa and Michiyo Ookusu. 116 minutes. An Asahi/Office Kitano production. An Alliance Atlantis release. Opens Friday (June 11). For venues and times see Movies, page 106. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
For the sake of those westerners who've never encountered any of the 20-odd Japanese titles that begin with his name, Zatôichi is a blind masseur who walks the Japanese countryside in the samurai era. He's also a master swordsman, so quick with his blade that he rarely gets involved in any prolonged fencing matches.
He does the hero thing - defending the weak, smiting the oppressor - with a wry humour that elevates the Zatàichi series above most generic samurai pictures, even if they seldom match the very best the genre has produced. Anyone wishing to explore the series can find the titles on DVD from Home Vision, which has issued about half the series.
Takeshi Kitano's multimedia career includes writing, directing and acting in his own films and those of others. Also known as "Beat" Takeshi from his stand-up comedy days, he's devoted most of his onscreen time to cultivating his own poker-faced cool in existential gangster films like Sonatine and Fireworks (Hana-bi).
After his exceedingly odd gay samurai film Gohatto (Taboo), Kitano turns his attention to Zatàichi, a near mythical figure in Japanese cinema, making him into a poker-faced character of inestimable cool.
He's so cool that he wins at gambling because his ears can detect which way the dice will fall by the sound of their rattle in the cup. He walks into a town that looks suspiciously like the one in Yojimbo, where the two dominant crime families are ripe to destroy each other, with a little help.
The help comes in the form of a talented ronin, an out-of-work masterless samurai who offers himself up to one of the gangs though it offends his sense of honour. He's so good that, once we've seen Zatàichi take on a gang of ruffians who steal his sword before attacking him and still lose, we know that everything is foreplay to their big showdown.
There's not nearly as much dead air as in most Kitano films. His direction here has snap, and every scene is staged as a tense confrontation between people battling to control the space 3 feet around them, a neat trick when everyone is sitting cross-legged on the floor.
Unfortunately, the climax isn't that impressive, in part because, as he himself admits, Kitano's no swordsman. Kitano the director is forced to cut around Kitano the actor, who just doesn't have the moves.