By far the most striking aspect of Takeshi Kitano’s The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi is the sheer amount of contempt it seems to have for the genre it dabbles in. There are about a dozen anachronistic touches, the incongruous percussive soundtrack to name just one, deliberately garish geysers of faker than fake blood when a character meets an (ultra-violent) end and a central performance that features “Beat” Takeshi quite literally sleepwalking through the titular role. This irreverence is all the more remarkable, considering that this is not just any period film, but a resurrection of one of the most enduring figures in Japanese pop culture. But having said all that, it is stunning, not to mention deliciously ironic, that this very quality is what makes the movie so thoroughly entertaining.
Takeshi Kitano’s gangster films like Sonatine are often characterized by long periods of inactivity, emptiness and stasis punctuated by brief spurts of brutal violence. He seems more interested in highlighting the gangster’s spiritual malaise, the violence itself being little more than a sudden, incidental, if inevitable happening. Zatoichi, while outwardly much lighter in tone, seems to think of the samurai, gamblers and even the geisha populating it’s period setting in much the same vein. The token wandering ronin, a perfectly oiled killing machine, this time played by the terrific Tadanobu Asano has a terminally ill wife, and so wishes to get money to treat her by working for the mob. Kitano drains pretty much all emotion out of this relationship, almost suggesting, not without merit, that the wife’s sickness is merely an excuse for the ronin to let loose on a world he clearly has no use for. After all, he even wishes to kill an incapacitated swordsman just for having humiliated him once in a practice duel.
The movie also has a dismissive attitude towards sword fights. In a lot of films of the genre, the buildup to a duel is almost as important, sometimes even more important than the actual duel itself. The reasons, the back story, and even the time spent sizing up the opponent during the fight, these are crucial ingredients. Kitano, true to form, is remorseless in his disregard for this basic convention, treating it as little more than excess genre fat, with fights erupting for no reason, or for predictably petty reasons and then over in the blink of an eye. To top it all off, Kitano’s Zatoichi himself seems just as blood-thirsty as the goons in the town he enters, more creepy than sympathetic. Not surprisingly, the town is another one of those hellholes populated with mobs who terrorize ordinary folk and are slowly, but systematically cleaned up by our main man.
The subplot concerning two geisha and their quest for vengeance is the only one that gets close to a full treatment, complete with flashbacks, dark secrets, family tragedies and all that fun stuff. But even this story of vengeance can’t help but take a back seat when there are more important things to focus on, like a certified nutcase dreaming of becoming a samurai and a no-good gambler using make-up to become “beautiful”. And by the time the movie winds down to it’s denouement, Kitano, ostensibly bored of the whole exercise already, essentially spits out the dummy by ending with a celebratory tap-dancing finale. That’s right, a musical set piece that is straight out of Bollywood. In a movie that is already chock-full of boldly stylistic touches, Kitano saves the best and the most twisted one for last.