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Beat wins another award,

because no one remember's Katsu's work.

ZATOICHI

(Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman came out on DVD last week. Go buy it, or be a jerk!)

I’ve seen so many Japanese films at this point, when some kanji-speaking Sushi chef starts inquiring about my nondescript appetite, imaginary yellow words actually appear across his chest. I can read them, and I understand what he is saying. “Yes. I like Inari. More please.”

Weird thing about that obscure bit of knowledge: I’d never, not before yesterday, seen a “Beat” Takeshi Kitano directorial feature. Sure, I’ve watched him act in Battle Royal and Johnny Mnemonic. But that’s all I knew him for. Shame on me. I’m quite unfamiliar with the man as a writer/director. Even though many hail “Beat” (does anyone still call him this? I’m out of the loop) as some sort of obtuse, cautionary God, I’ve yet to venture forth and wallow in his oeuvre. He’s been called the master of “Japanese Cinema.”

Nope. I simply don’t care.

What I do know and care about is the original Zatoichi series, which began in 1962 and petered out with its 26th installment in 1989. There was also a TV series (catalogued at 100 episodes or more). Shintaro Katsu was the original blind swordsman. A masseur who never knew the true meaning of a happy ending. He wasn’t down with the rub-n-tug technique. The only fingers he fiddled were across the handle of his cane sword. A mighty blade. In black and white, Katsu was a kick ass samurai of the night. He wandered about the Japanese countryside with his dead eyes half-shut, mumbling and riffing on the tiny unseen details of his life. Every once in awhile, he’d be forced into some sort of factionary traffic jam. He usually escaped without incident.

Sure, there was a time or two, there, when it looked like he might get his dick handed to him in a Ziploc bag. But those moments were few and far between. And he handled them like a pro. His toes constantly edged that life or death situation, even though he wasn’t down with an HMO plan. Cut fingers and bruised shins were part of the contract. Zatoichi never whined. He’s why those PC fools invented the word handicapable.

A friend of mine, Christjan, turned me onto the Blind Swordsman about four years ago. Well before Kitano pounced on the bright idea of bringing Zatoichi back from the dead. I remember seeing everyone’s favorite sight-impaired samurai for the first time. Zatoichi was fighting a one-armed ass kicker, and I was instantly hooked. I needed more. Thankfully, Home Vision Entertainment started pumping out three DVD titles at a time, on a revolving interval, in early 2002. They only had the rights to episodes 1 – 19, though. Media Blasters and Koch Vision picked up the slack, boot-thrusting Zat’s latter day fight fests onto my Versatile shelf. I like them all. I’m a fan. These newer installments from the 70s are trippy in a psychedelic ruins type way, and way cool. Yet, I still believe the legend lives best in different shades of gray. Call me a black and white aficionado…

Early into the series, there came an awesome action sequence that knocked the oxygen out of my pee hole. It firmly lodged my lungs into my bladder and created all kinds of glory holes around my lower torso. Zatoichi is in a field. He is surrounded by more than a dozen Ronin Warriors. They charge him at once. It’s a tight group, formed like a fist. Usually, in a karate-bullpen-alleyway showdown, where a Jackie Chan or a Chuck Norris goes against an entire army, the attackers engage their stealth moves one at a time. In slow motion. I always found that type of color-by-numbers fight choreography to be a bit chintzy. This was the first time I ever saw the trend being bucked. Like a trailer hitch. And it was being done by a less than casual fighter…

Never before had I witnessed one lone figure strive off such an amalgamated frenzy of flying steel. In a single sweeping motion. He was making action history. And the mother f*cker’s blind. He can’t see. Sh*t. That’s some damage plan. Zatoichi nailed them all in one fail, swift, swoop of up and down arm movements. His actions came as a stilted mist; refreshing against the face. And this amazing sight was shown in a single shot. It was believable. And over within a half-second.

That’s one of the reasons I dig the crap out of Katsu’s smaller than life caricature. He didn’t let the stink linger. He never showed off for showing off’s sake. When it came to fighting, he got it over with ASAP. Boom-boom-boom. And then he was done with it. He’d just walk away, unscathed. Dead bodies piled around him like it was no thing. He didn’t have to jump over pool tables or pinball machines to prove his coolness.

Nope.

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Second later their swords turned to cartoons and started singing.
Watching this blurring brawl of blades, I instinctively thought of Star Wars. The first thing Obi-Wan Kenobi teaches Luke is how to fight blind. That’s Skywalker’s very first Jedi lesson. Why? It must be because of Zatoichi. He had to be the inspiration. And, since it’s the first thing on Obi Wan’s roster, it would make since for him to fight blind in Episode III. Wouldn’t it? Yeah, that’s what I want to see. I want a member of the Sith, maybe even Anikan, to scorch Ben’s ocular sockets. Maybe thwack those baby blues with his new red saber. Kenobi’s irises are burnt to a crisp. General Grievous and a thousand droids take him on all at once. In a huddle of churning metal, Ben swings that neon blade and hacks through the weight. How colossal would that pants crap be?

Massive like a handsome turd (to use a phrase coined by Imperial Mantooth.)

Sadly, if we’re to believe that asshole who’s already seen the Sith rough cut, there’s no such scene to be seen in Lucas’ latest Wookie opus. That really is too bad. I guess a fight that cool is beyond the capabilities of the Star Wars Universe.

But maybe not too cool for a new Zatoichi film.

Damn. I waited awhile to see this fresh take on an age-old genre. I learned that Beat was planning to bring Zatoichi back sometime in late 2002. I was psyched. Beyond adulated. This wasn’t like the news that they were creating a wholly new Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Or baiting a clean take on the Dawn of the Dead esthetic. No. This wouldn’t be a remake. It would be the continuation of a character and a series. Not one story from the 126 already told would be recreated. Zatoichi was going the way of Bond and Batman. This was great news, and, even though I wasn’t familiar with Takeshi, I knew he’d sh*t the fart out of the turd. Yeah. This twitchy jerk was sure to make an excellent new Zatoichi. Kitano was set to be the Roger Moore to Shintaro’s Sean Connery.

It seems like it took forever for the Region 3 Zatoichi DVD to come out. By the time it was available for purchase from HK Flix, news reached our American shores that Miramax had acquired the rights to show this new Zatoichi in the states. Uncut. I figured I’d wait. Alas, Movieweb never got offered a screening pass. It only played at the Arclight, and I guess I was too lazy to make my way up that hill. I didn’t want to pay to watch it.

It saddens me that I never managed to see this film illuminated against a huge wrap-around screen. That probably would have patched up a few holes in my soul…

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Shintaro and Takeshi own the same cane sword.
Maybe that’s just the way things are supposed to be. I’ve never seen any of Zatoichi’s films on anything bigger than a twenty-inch TV set. So, that’s exactly the way I watched Kitano’s latest Japanese bi-product. And the first thing that struck me odd was the aspect ratio. Beat chose to shoot in 1.85:1. A more intimate, boxed in style of sword swinging, to say the least. Shintaro Katsu also went this route when producing his last six outings in the series. Personally, I like the wider scope of the earlier films. They are vast and beautiful. More poetic and grand in their overall scheme. I can understand why Katsu would choose the more confined spacing with his branded cycle coming to an end. The films would be more aptly seen and available on TV and home video. And a cropped piece of cinema is bollocks. Yet, here, in 2004, DVDs and the use of Wide Screen cinema are rampant. This new Zatoichi is a lush painting that encompasses, and wraps itself around, the brain. I’m a little surprised that Takeshi wouldn’t utilize the immense weight of shooting it in scope. Well, aside from the fact that he’s never used that cinematic technique before. Don’t get me wrong; he is a very visual director. He proves that here. I only wish he could have expanded his palate. Zatoichi is a film that screams for special treatment. The character is a classic. And his hugeness isn’t easily contained in the squat aspect ratio of 1.85:1. I don’t think so, anyway…

Reading reviews of Beat’s Zatoichi, I’m struck by one fact. Not a whole Hell of a lot of people know about, or have seen, the original series. I’ve come across more than a few dumb f*ck’s that’ve called Kitano out for ripping off Rutger Hauer’s Blind Fury. It’s an honest mistake (yeah, right). The other thing I noticed is that more than most of these so-called critics ape the originality and look of Kitano’s work. As a group, they’ve called it an inspired piece of awesomeness never before seen on screen. If you were wondering, those statements are what brought me to the conclusion that none of the retards whoring their scribbled thoughts on Rotten Tomatoes had ever seen a Shintaro Katsu sponsored Zatoichi outing.

The most remarkable thing about this new installment of the long-running episodic franchise is how exacting it is in retrofitted detail. Beat has perfectly acclimated himself into the Zatoichi universe. This looks and feels exactly like every other chapter ever made. Down to the last wicker basket. The recreation is remarkably accurate. And the thin storyline is equally befitting to the legacy. Even the concept of gender confusion amongst an angry Samurai landscape seething with blood-hatred would have fit Katsu’s sightless hero to a T.

For all intensive purposes (yes, that is what I meant to say), this is a beautiful continuation of the well-embedded blind masseur mythos. The editing style is a bit different. It’s more reminiscent of Kitano’s own twitchy facial gestures than it is anything else. Sometimes, it has a tendency to jerk and jump at the most inappropriate moments, kind of like Beat’s eyelids. Still, by the time end credits roll, it’s clear that this is, in fact, the same old Zatoichi…

Almost. It’s a give and take…

Yeah. This is “I Hate Your Stupid Movie.” So I’d be apropos to fall on bended knee, proclaiming an undying love for the thing. That’s not my style, and I like to bitch like a little bitty baby hungry for attention.

I know. You probably think I’m going to call out the Japanese Line Dancing expose that ends the piece on a rather cheery beat (I’m not at liberty to say if there’s a pun intended with that oblique use of the director’s name or not). No. I refuse. I thought this tiny aspect of the film was great. A much needed bit of fun. It made the whole thing feel like a stage play. I hate stage plays, but I do love a good musical segue. And it works. Too many people have made too much of this tap dancing clutch. I, myself, had heard of its inclusion beforehand, and was expecting some bombastic musical number with weird lyrics included. That’s not what happens at all. Rather, all of the characters come out and clog-dash their way into the ether. What’s wrong with that? Nothing. I also quite enjoyed the melodic interludes that occasionally interrupt the piece. Architects and field works bang their wares in unison, trolling out an African-inspired rhythmic gesture. It changes up and switches the atmosphere with humble ease. It’s a baby-step of genius that works in creating a unique atmosphere.

Enough with the praise, though. On with the gripes (as if you care; I don’t and I’m typing this crap…God, I must really be bored).

First point of contention…

Sadly, Kitano’s film failed to live up to the hype I’d built within my own brain. Like I said, I desperately want a blind Jedi grudge match showdown that would equal or best anything I ever saw in Katsu’s previous series. I mean, come on, how could a Zatoichi cane attack be better than anything ever seen in a Star Wars movie? That shouldn’t come as truth, but from the sounds of it, May 2005 will prove the quaint notion to be true.

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Shintaro Katsu in The Tale of Zatoichi continues...
Well, I’d hoped that Beat would at least live up to those Army-wasting field days of the Original Blind Swordsman. He missed the boat. Sure, a couple of times he takes on more than just a couple of men. But never a bakers dozen. And the swordplay is highly disappointing. It is made more graphic and gory for today’s sophisticated (yeah, right) audiences, but it fails in truly being awe inspired. Shintaro never needed CGI created weaponry. Everything he did was real. It was made of solid steel objects. At every turn, it was believable.

Not so here. The computer-generated sword work seen in Beat’s Zatoichi is dismaying. It’s sloppy. It looks and feels like a badly drawn cartoon. So do the geysers of pixilated blood. I found it impossible to focus my eyes on this gruesome mess. Every time another keyboard fashioned blade went through someone’s chest, I was literally brought out of the experience. I couldn’t sit, and enjoy the battles, or the swiftness of this blind man’s hands, because it looks as though Hanna-Barbara traced all of the melees by mouth. The Zatoichi Universe is real. It’s supposed to be made of wood. And thistles. Not poorly created computer-rendered artwork. CGI is single-handedly ruining cinema. It has its place, but far too many people are abusing it. We don’t need it in a Zatoichi film, or any Samurai epic, for that matter…

More disappointing than the CGI’d sword fights in its overall nature is the character of Zatoichi himself. Don’t get me wrong. The above notion is true. Kitano is Roger Moore to Shintaro’s Sean Connery. Beat plays the persona with aplomb and creative energy. It’s a beautiful masterstroke on his part. He wields a weeded brilliance and carries it back to Japan like no one else could have. That’s not the problem. And neither is the bleached blonde hair; a good look for Takeshi. The problem becomes the arc of the entrenched plot. It never really affects the title character. He doesn’t need to be here, and maybe that’s Beat’s point. Zatoichi literally gets lost in the background action. He drifts beneath the dirt. Stronger elements take hold, and the man is left to linger on the outskirts of his own outing. Why? For f*ck’s sake. The goddamn movie is called Zatoichi. Not "Some Hot Girl and Her Tranny, Dick-S*cking Brother".

But it might as well have been.

Zatoichi almost becomes inconsequential to the plot. I’m more than positive that’s supposed to be Kitano’s point. He’s stressed before, in many forms of literature and media, that he, himself, is not a fan of the blind masseur persona and what it stood for in direct relation to Japanese Pop Culture.

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Shintaro Katsu, the original blind swordsman.
He makes that a strong case with his backbreaking conclusion, included here as a joke. Yes, Beat toys with the idea that Zatoichi can actually see. That’s about as insulting as making James Bond impotent. This notion literally grabbed me and ripped me from the screen. I was incensed. I’m not sure why. The guy is fictional. Didn’t seem to matter in the moment. Takashi literally takes the piss out of the pirate. His Zatoichi approaches the main bad guy, and he opens his eyes. Exposed are these two steel-gray, luminescent orbs not unlike those of Dick Riddick’s eyes. And for a matter of minutes, we’re lead to believe that Zatoichi actually has sight. That he keeps his eyes closed for posterity reasons. Oh, this made me mad. Even the very thought of it had me seething.

Now, I’m not quite sure what the on-screen truth is. The film refuses to make it clear. Can he or can’t he see? We’re left to wonder that through the duration of the Samurai line-dance. To tell you the truth, I wanted to rip that DVD from my Sony player and yell at it, “I hate you, movie! You are a f*cking bastard.”

Beat must have felt my presence looming over his quaint self-proclaimed masterpiece, because after a long, drawn-out sweat session, he came back onscreen in character…

“The truth of the matter is, even with my eyes wide open, I still can’t see a thing.” He whispers to us in a hint of conformist aggression. Right before tripping over a rock. I didn’t understand. I couldn’t comprehend. My brain was still reeling. I mean, was this a metaphor? He can visual see, but he can’t “see”? See what I mean?

Or is he telling me that he really is blind? God, I’m not sure.

And that’s what makes the experience so frustrating.

I’ll go back to the film in due time. I’ll probably watch it again. And again after that. It’s just not my favorite in the cannon. I hear Beat is making a sequel. A second Zatoichi. Maybe even a third. He’ll surely refuse to make 26 of them, but someone else will come in and pick up the slack. A Miike Zatoichi would probably rip the jaw of an unsuspecting populace. And in that episode, it will be reveled that Zat actually does have vision…But only through his piss hole. Or maybe his vagina (yeah, I wouldn’t put it past Miike to give Zatoichi a vagina; and I wouldn’t be surprised if more than one person crawled out of said vagina).

As you can see, I’m genuinely on the fence here. On one hand, I love what Takeshi Kitano has done with the series. In many ways, he’s stayed truer to the source material than anyone could have ever expected. Yet, certain aspects of the legacy have been grievously mishandled. A sad fact; no one really seems to care. Because Shintaro Katsu’s hard work is outdated and dusty. It’s in a drawer, and that core group over at Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t feel the need to study.

Oh, well. No skin off my balls. Just twenty dollars out of my wallet. Does including Sonatine on the DVD feel cheap to anyone else, or is it just me? I don’t know…

I guess I don’t care.

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Zatoichi flirts with the idea of sight.
If you rent or buy Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman, and you find yourself really liking it…Please check out the essential Zatoichi catalogue available for purchase through this very website. For starters, I recommend Zatoichi Vol. 1: The Tale of Zatoichi, Vol. 2: The Tale of Zatoichi Continues, Vol. 20: Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, Vol. 22: Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman, and the final Katsu installment from 1989, Vol. 26: Darkness is his Ally. I’ll admit, though, that they all pretty much kick your face off and you can’t really go wrong with any of them.

But why listen to me? I suck.

But not as much as you do, you turd-sucking faggot. Yeah, I’m talking to you. You know who you are. I don’t even need to say your name.

Bitch.

Zatoichi will kill you!

Dont't forget to also check out: The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi