The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003)
Directed by Takeshi Kitano

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi
Takeshi Kitano (Zatoichi), Tadanobu Asano (Hattori), Gadarukanaru Taka (Shinkichi), Daigoro Tachibana (Osei), Yuko Daike (Okinu), Michiyo Okusu (Aunt Oume), Yui Natsukawa (Shino), Ittoku Kishibe (Boss Ginzo), Saburo Ishikura (Boss Ogi), Akira Emoto (Pops), Ben Hiura (Gramps), Kohji Miura (Lord Sakai)

Shochiku, 116 minutes
Color, 1.85:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray:
Miramax Films/Buena Vista

Following Shintaro Katsu's death in 1997, Takeshi Kitano was the first filmmaker with the gumption to attempt a remake of Zatoichi -- not only as the director and screenwriter but also as the star. When I first saw this movie I despised it just because I couldn't stand the sight of "Beat Takeshi" in his stupid bleached blond hair pretending to the greatness of a cinematic icon. Today it still irks me that this remake is what the popular western consciousness (and Google) considers to be Zatoichi, but having reevaluated the film I can admit it's not so completely without merit.

The story is actually pretty interesting, done with admirable style and verve, and faithfully incorporating loads of the classic Zatoichi tropes and trademarks. The main weakness is the lead character himself, who never seems to refer to himself as "Ichi" so I'll just call him "Zatoichi." Kitano doesn't attempt to impersonate Katsu, but he doesn't manage to create a memorable new incarnation of the character. His Zatoichi is a cipher, a blind man who kicks ass with a sword cane but never lets us get to know him or care about him. So let's run down the old checklist...

Mystery Ronin: Yep, we've got a really good mystery ronin named Genosuke Hattori, a noble former samurai struggling to afford medicine for his sick wife. He uses his awesome sword skills to find work as a yojimbo for the evil yakuza boss Ginzo (and the actor playing him makes an absolutely perfect Zatoichi villain, by the way). When Hattori sees Zatoichi's cane sword accidentally exposed at a tavern, he recognizes the blind man as a formidable talent, and of course the stage is set for a showdown in the end.

Dice Game: True to the original, Kitano's Zatoichi loves to gamble on the dice, although he only relies on his hearing to win instead of doing the blind man's roll. An inept gambler named Shinkichi tries to horn in on Zatoichi's lucky streak, and ends up tagging along as the blind man's comic relief sidekick. Shinkichi's fascination with Zatoichi's luck becomes a running gag, as he practices gambling with his eyes closed but never quite gets the hang of it.

Zatoichi's Lady Friends: Zatoichi and Shinkichi meet up with a pair of geishas named Okinu and Osei, who seem to be con artists seducing, robbing and killing their would-be clients. Zatoichi quickly figures out Osei's secret before he and Shinkichi can become their next prey, and then the geishas reveal the truth behind their dark vendetta. Okinu and Osei become the most compelling characters, much more interesting than Zatoichi himself.

Zatoichi's Amazing Feats: In the immortal words of AC/DC, if you want blood, you got it. As long as you're compatible with blood type GGI-positive. Zatoichi and Hattori each do a generous amount of mutilation and dismemberment, with globs of artificial red stuff spurting and floating through the air in slow motion. Kitano claims he deliberately made the violence surreal and wanted the blood to "look like flowers blossoming across the screen." Hattori actually demonstrates more parlor-trick sword moves than Zatoichi does in the movie. One highlight comes when a hapless henchman attempts to attack the passing Zatoichi in order to test a new sword. The blind man severs the sword at the hilt and walks on without a word, leaving the stunned attacker unharmed.

Musical Interludes: This leading man isn't musical like his forebear, although there is plenty of singing and dancing in the movie. As part of the geishas' routine, Okinu plays the shamisen while Osei dances. Then there's the big production number at the end, the "tap-dancing scene" that has caused much consternation among Western audiences. The sequence makes sense in the tradition of musical chambara films, where it was common to cross song and dance with swordplay, especially in a celebratory finale. But to uncultured American viewers who've never seen a Hibari Misori film, it would come across as cheesy and inexplicable.

As the story with the geishas and the bosses and Hattori progresses, Zatoichi disappears for long passages. Even the wacky Shinkichi gets more screen time and character development than the supposed hero. It's fine to have an emotionally distant and unknowable protagonist in a movie, but considering how the original series was all about the warmth, humor, compassion and inner torments of the lead character, this doesn't feel like Zatoichi at all. This could have been a much better movie if it focused on Okinu and Osei instead of a blond blind swordsman. As it is, I advise anyone looking for a Zatoichi movie to know that this is a rehash and check out the bona fide originals instead.

The Jidai-Geki Knights