Sometimes back, my friend, a junkie of the Asian cinema, gave me Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-Bi (a winner at the Venice film festival, 1997). Kitano, also known by his stage name “Beat” Takeshi, is one of the respected and well known filmmakers in modern Japan (He is the one who said, Merry Christ-mas, Mr. Lawrence, in Nagisha Oshima eponymous film.) His films mostly deal with the Yakuza gangsters and proffers a nihilistic worldview, coupled with portrayal of ruthless and graphic violence. All these are true in case of Hana-Bi (Fireworks). But somehow, I failed to get into the film. I could not even see half of it.
Therefore, when the same friend gave me a copy of Kitano’s Zatoichi (Another winner at Venice, 2003), I was little sceptic. I played the film, knowing fully well that I may have to switch it off after a while. The film opens in rural Japan, last century, the colour of the scenery is grey-black. We see an old, blind man sitting near the roadside. A group of men, armed with swords, approaches. They ask a young boy, who was passing by, to steal the old man’s cane for a yen. The blind wander confronts the group. This is an unequal fight. And then, swish... and a heap of dead bodies lie around the blind man, the masseur, Zatoichi.
You have seen Samurai films which thrives on action. Here, it is an anti-climax. Here, the fight sequences do not last more than 10 seconds. But how they are executed, how Zatoichi turns his walking stick into a lethal blade, and how he kills just by following the sound of the victim, the clink of his sword, his breath, deliver the thrills.
The film is an odd product, not only for Kitano, who usually deal with hard-boiled crime dramas but also for the entire Zatoichi tradition of Japanese films.
Says Wikipedia: Zatoichi is a fictional character featured in one of Ja-pan’s longest running series of films and a television series set in the Edo pe-riod. The character, a blind masseur and swordmaster, was created by nov-elist Kan Shimozawa. This originally minor character was developed for the screen by Daiei Studios (now Kadokawa Pictures) and actor Shintaro Katsu, who created the screen version. A total of 26 films were made from 1962 to 1989. From 1972 to 1974, a television series of the same name was made. One hundred and twelve episodes were aired.
Kitano’s Zatoichi is not a remake of one of those films, neither it is a con-tinuation of the same narrative. Kitano take the structure of the tradition and builds a Samurai revenge action film which is at times funny and at times profoundly understated. Though the film focuses on Zatoichi, played by the director himself (he usually is the protagonist in his films) with a straight face, closed eyes and a stoop, and with chopped silver hair, it lovely accommo-dates so many other strands of the narrative, not only the villain of the piece, but also a host of minor characters, and closes the film with a Japanese ver-sion of tap dance sequence which has a life of its own. More about it later. First the film.
From Wikipedia: The film's plot follows a traditional theme, with Zatoichi coming to the defence of townspeople caught up in a local Yakuza gang war and being forced to pay excessive amounts of protection money. Meanwhile, Zatoichi befriends a local farmer and her gambler nephew and eventually offers his assistance to two geisha siblings (one of whom is actu-ally a man) who are seeking revenge for the murder of their parents. The sib-lings are the only survivors of a massacre that was carried out on their family estate in order to obtain large sums of money ten years ago. They soon dis-cover the people responsible for the murders are the same Yakuza wreaking havoc on the small town. After slicing his way through an army of henchmen with his kodachi, Zatoichi defeats the Yakuzas' bodyguard, a powerful ronin, in a duel. Zatoichi later wanders into town and confronts the Yakuza bosses, killing the second-in-command and blinding the elderly Yakuza boss (who had been masquerading as a bumbling old waiter up until this point) after opening his eyes for the first time and giving the boss the impression that he has been able to see the entire time. The film ends with a dance number led by noted Japanese tap dance troupe The Stripes, and Zatoichi walking down a trail and tripping over a rock, saying "No matter how wide you open your eyes, you can't see what you can't see."
Zatoichi begins like an action movie; no, it remains an action movie, only that it takes deliberate pauses at regular intervals to tell us other stories, and Kitano tells them lovingly, even the story of the ronin and his ailing wife; the story of the elderly boss, the activities of the gambling den, the village life, everything. The way the blind swordsman displays his skills is a marvel; at the end, there’s a twist, which explain a lot of things, but the actions of Ki-tano’s Zatoichi does not depend on the given skill, it works with a rationale. There is a scene Zatoichi is confronted by another swordsman. For a second, Zatoichi is confused because he cannot hear the man; he does not know where his adversary stands. Then the adversary sighs, and swish, he’s dead. The way the action scenes are picturised, fast cuts and close-ups, they give the scenes such a depth that even prolonged scenes cannot do. There are visual effects at work, but you are not aware of them as you see the scenes. As the film progresses, dead bodies pile up in hordes, so much so that you wonder who would dispose all those bodies, you wonder if there is no law in the land. In true, there is no law in the land, and Zatoichi is justice rein-carnated. But his justice is swift and without any emotion. Zatoichi may sym-pathise with the underdogs, he never shows it, he works according to his own code, which is not really defined.
The film is mostly shot in monochromic grey, with a dash of colour here and there, like the fight sequence in the rain in the middle of the film, it’s all grey till the blood splashes across the screen, creating a vivid contrast.
And the dance sequence at the end of the film. It surpasses everything else as it throbs with pulsating life surpassing everything.
Kitano’s Zatoichi is for the fans of Samurai films for it shows a new way of looking at the genre. This is film for those who do not like Samurai films for it shows what the genre can achieve with a director who dares to think out of the box. This is vintage Takeshi Kitano, violent may be, but wonderful to be-hold, and an wonderful experience to savour.