Zatoichi is the lead character from one of Japan’s most beloved movie series, consisting of 26 films which ran from 1962 to 1989. The films tell the story of a blind masseur who earns his living wandering from village to village. But the twist is that he is also an expert swordsman, his sense of hearing in particular having become hyper-acute over the years to compensate for his lack of sight. In addition, he is also a compulsive gambler, making much more money from playing the dice than he does from being a masseuse, his hearing allowing him to figure out how the dice fall!
Last week I watched one of the Zatoichi films, interestingly not one from the ‘official series’, but a remake released in 2003, directed by the multi-talented Japanese cultural icon Takesh Kitano (a.k.a. Beat Takeshi).
Titled Zatoichi, it is an extraordinary film and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in 2 hours of entertainment involving a mix of drama, humour and action.
The most unexpected feature of the film is the incorporation of Japanese tap-dance group The Stripes into various sequences in the film. These are incidental or background sequences lasting no more than a minute, which have no bearing on the plot but are pretty entertaining. The first of sequences can be found here; in the first few seconds, I wasn’t sure if it was my imagination or if there really was some pattern to the sounds of the 4 farmers digging the field. Then as the pattern settled in, of course it became clear that it was all orchestrated. There is a similar scene with the same 4 farmers dancing in the rain, then one at the end with 4 masons building a house. The film ends with a full-on performance by the entire troupe, masquerading as some sort of temple festival dance…as incongruous as the song-and-dance sequences we see in Indian films, but utterly charming and enjoyable.
Coming back to this remake, it has a ‘by-the-numbers plot’, similar in many ways to the classic samurai films like Yojimbo, which itself was an homage to the classic Western – itinerant wanderer comes into town, is taken in by innocent downtrodden resident, takes on the local bad guys and wipes them out, then walks off into the sunset, leaving behind eternally grateful beneficiary.
But although the story is typical, the charm lies in the execution; I loved the way the different characters were quickly introduced at the beginning, each with his/her backstory told in quick-flashback style. The fight sequences feature a fair bit of blood (in contrast to traditional samurai films which almost never show any), but it is so obviously CGI that the violence seems cartoonish and ‘acceptable’. The supporting cast are all very good, featuring some big names from the industry – ‘Japanese Johnny Depp’ Tadanobu Asano, respected character actress Michiyo Okusu and comedian ‘Guadalcanal’ Taka. But most of all, it is Takeshi Kitano himself, playing Zatoichi who is magnetic and eerily disturbing in this role.
After I finished this film, I decided to watch one of the originals; I picked Zatoichi vs. Yojimbo, which had the blind swordsman pitted against the iconic Yojimbo character from the Kurosawa films and actually played by Toshiro Mifune himself. But I was quite disappointed to see the original Zatoichi, having now accepted Takeshi Kitano’s version as my template. Compared to the superhuman Kitano version, the original Zatoichi played by the beloved Shintaro Katsu came across as some sort of bumbling, chubby-cheeked village idiot.
Recently, I came across this descriptive and revealing interview, in which Takeshi Kitano explains how he came to take on this project and what sort of liberties he took with this remake. Having read this, I have a better appreciation for why the remake is so different from the original. I am going to try and watch a couple of the original films, but I suspect that Kitano’s version will remain my favourite. What a pity I had to watch the remake first…26 films from the original series ruined forever!