What does Miramax do for an encore to their wildly successful duology Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2? They release Takeshi Kitano's Blind Swordsman epic, Zatoichi, this Summer Uncut and Subtitled. Kitano is known here in the States primarily for his dark Yakuza pictures (Violent Cop, Sonatine, Fireworks, Brother), but he is also a comedian (as 'Beat' Takeshi, which is the name he performs under), author and Television personality in his home country of Japan. With the film Zatoichi, he creates one of his most accessible and endearing works, as well as another worthy addition to the film legacy of the character Zatoichi, who is no less revered than Robin Hood or Batman in Western Culture.
Ichi ('Beat' Takeshi), the blind, platinum haired Masseur and Master Swordsman, has stopped to rest on the side of the road. Bandits with a score to settle trick him and remove his cane sword, but Ichi is far from defenseless and quickly spills first blood sending the thugs running for their lives. With this quick introduction to the Blind Swordsman, Kitano shows us just what a formidable and resourceful warrior he is, without sight and even unarmed. As Ichi continues his wanderings, the audience encounters two other groups of travelers. The first is that of a Ronin, named Hattori (Tadanobu Asano), and his sick wife. He is looking for work as a Bodyguard so that he might pay to cure her illness. The other group is that of a pair of Geisha, Okinu and Osei, who are desperately trying to find the men who murdered their parents a decade before, and avenge their deaths.
Having established the main players, Kitano makes sure that everyone winds up in the same small town, which is run with an iron fist by the local Crime Lord. Ichi boards with a spinster and manages to reunite her with her gambling addicted nephew after rescuing him from a local dice game. Ichi never set out to rescue anyone, as he himself is a very accomplished gambler whose heightened senses help him to bet, but who had to act quickly when thugs caught on to his talent. Making off with their winnings the pair encounter the Geishas and learn their tragic story. Eventually, the whole group ends up back at the old woman's place. Meanwhile, Hattori has found a job as the hired muscle for the criminal's gang, insuring that his path will cross with that of our heroes. What follows is a series of cat and mouse games between the two sides so that Ichi can help avenge the Geisha's parents and free the town from their oppressors.
In the wake of the Kill Bill Saga, the comparisons with this movie are obvious, but Tarantino is the plagiarist in this case, mixing and matching various international film styles to meet his grind-house fixations. To say Kitano's movie contains numerous swordfights, copious (CGI) bloodshed, laugh-out-loud humor and the righting of many, many wrongs is missing the point entirely. This is a movie that is a joy to watch and reminds you why you watch movies in the first place. It's the perfect escapist fantasy that contains a natural rhythm in every scene, finally culminating in an actual dance number featuring several key members of the cast. For the diehards out there, worried that Kitano's interpretation is too righteous, fear not for his Ichi is just as complex and crafty as Shintaro Katsu's original, even pulling a final trick on both his adversaries and the audience at the end.
Takeshi Kitano is considered to be the epitome of cool by many cineastes and if this movie doesn't convince you he's the Man, then I'm afraid there is little hope for you. Certainly not everyone got into his bleak and violent takes on the Japanese underworld, but this is a film that you can stand up and cheer for. Yes, this movie has scenes of intense violence. And yes, this movie spills a lot blood. But it also has a happy ending that leaves the viewer feeling nothing short of euphoric. So, please, go see Zatoichi when it hits theaters (July 23) and remember the joy of watching movies, again.