Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Zatoichi (2003)

Look at my stick, it's a big ol stick. STAB!
Look at my stick, it's a big ol stick. STAB!

Zatoichi, is a remake of the popular and long running series set in the Edo period of Japan's history about a blind Japanese swordsman. The movies began in the 60s and a TV series of over 100 episodes was also produced in the 70s. All up there are around 26 movies plus a few knock-offs like the American made Blind Fury. This particular incarnation is the first Zatoichi made since 1989 and features a far bigger budget than any of the previous movies. The director is also the main character and one of the editors, so that was one way to cut costs. But enough of the history, was it any good? Well, unlike many Japanese/Korean/Chinese martial arts films, the answer for me is a pretty confident yes.

The film begins with a couple of murders then introduces the main character - Zatoichi - followed by the bad guys made up of two rival gangs, then a few good guys to round out the cast. Among the good guys are a middle-aged peasant woman, her mostly useless nephew, a Geisha woman, her brother (disguised as a Geisha) and a motley collection of others featuring the crazy next door neighbor who runs around in his underwear carrying out his version of samurai training. The movie bounces between several main locations; a bar, the peasant womans house, a gambling den, the streets of the town, various flashbacks - and it all feels genuine. That coming from a man who has never been to Edo period Japan, but as far as movie sets go they were convincing.

The story revolves around the Geisha woman, her brother and their quest for vengeance. A gang called the rotting ropes murdered their parents in a paper-home invasion several years back, and ever since they've travelled the land disguised as Geisha entertainers, tracking down gang members and killing them. The siblings arrive in town and meet Zatoichi and the nephew. As the story progresses they discover one of the warring gangs in town is the rotting ropes, and so hatch a plot of murder and dismemberment. Zatoichi goes on to kill a lot of people including all the men in the gambling den when he catches them cheating, and it's wrapped up at the end with a nice long dance number. Yes, a dance number.

For all its funny little idiosyncracies (synchronised field ploughing music, overwrought spurts of blood?), Zatoichi is a serious film about a hardcore dude who kills every motherfucker in the room while at the same time being completely blind. What I really appreciated about the fighting was its brevity. A fighter won or lost in the first 5 seconds, none of this back and forth rubbish, because that's pretty much how real sword fighting worked.

I found the music understated but well matched to each scene and character. The acting was excellent, as I almost always find in Japanese cinema (except Guitar Wolf, but that's a different kind of movie altogether). If I had to complain about anything it would be a few little plot holes and perhaps the length - it was just a touch too long. If anyone can explain why the brother and sister initially tried to kill Zatoichi and the nephew, it would fill in a big plot hole for me.

8.5/10 - Good fun cinema from the far east (or near north for me in Australia). Lot's of swords, plenty of killing, a little philosophy. Oh and no wire fighting. Recommended.

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