With 2003's Zatoichi, the multi-tasking Takeshi "Beat" Kitano took on his most commercial film in his directorial career as well as a beloved Japanese film icon. Kitano insists he (as well as most of the modern Japanese film going public) was only vaguely familiar with the 26 film and tv series legacy embodied by actor Shintaro Katsu as the signature blind masseur, gambler, and swordsman, thus he found the project was worth tackling. Well, he still has guys like me, who have seen every Zatoichi film and hold the jidia geki series very dear, to contend with.
Zatoichi follows the formula of the films that came before it... Ichi (Kitano), the wandering scoundrel, happens to enter a town in turmoil due to feuding gangster factions. The first person he meets is a simple village woman who gives him a roof to sleep under and, like everyone else, is feeling the pinch of increased payoffs to the local thugs. He makes his way into the gambling parlors and befriends an amiable but luckless gambler named Shinkichi. The two meet a pair of geishas who are not what they seem and have come to the town with murderous intent. Ichi's profitable gambling and sticking up for the locals puts him on the gangsters radar and they hire a deadly ronin, who is in need of cash for his ailing wife, to combat the blind swordsman. The crossed paths of all of these figures converge with Ichi finally dueling it out and trying to uncover the secret boss behind it all.
Takeshi Kitano proved himself to be the perfect guide for a new Zatoichi film. While I don't think it lives up to probably a tenth of the original films legacy or Shintaro Katsu's enigmatic performance (honestly, how could it?), it is still a highly entertaining film. It is a deft blend of tight pacing, multiple colorful characters, and welcome bursts of comic goodness and thrilling violence. Kitano's sensibility, that fluid blend of comedy, shocking violence, and serious emotion, is perfect. He also injects the film with a beautiful sense of rhythm, in both the score and actions, from the framers working in the fields, to Ichi's sword fights, to the rousing village festival dance finale.
Kitano's approach to the character is unique. While the basic prexisting elements of the man and the samurai period film are there, Kitano adds many touches throughout that definitely make this a reinterpretation with a slight grasp of the original. In the Katsu Zatoichi films, he was the sun the other characters revolved around. Kitano takes a backseat approach, and the biggest surprise may be how little focus and screen time the title character gets. Kitano gives himself few close ups, keeps his head bowed or his back to the camera, and often gives the other actors more prominence on the screen. But, it serves a purpose and he isn't just meekly melting into the background. This Ichi is well dressed and assured. The character, in comparison to the others around him, is almost motivationless, making him more of an enigma. While still quiet, comical, and deadly, this Ichi isn't as tattered and helpless looking, suggesting that Kitano was much more interested in heightening the ambiguous nature of a antihero who can only solve problems with his sword.
The first time I saw Sonatine (1993), I hated it. At the time, Takeshi Kitano was just a guy I had heard about as a new voice in Asian cinema, a name fanzines mentioned in the same breath as the likes of John Woo and such. My problem was, knowing it was a yakuza gangster film, I expected it to be exploitative and, at the least, have some action. Thus, I entered the film expecting an entirely different kind of movie. I was geared up for the pacing of Ringo Lam or Kinji Fukasku not Jaques Tati. It wasn't until I saw Kitano's two previous films, his great directional debut Violent Cop and his so-so sophomore film Boiling Point that I woke up and digested his poetic style and realized its purpose- as well as the fact that my own stupid preconceptions expecting some bullet ballet are what made me dislike the movie.
Sonatine is an amazingly simple and effective reflection of violence and moral corruption. A yakuza boss with a small section of turf, Murakawa (Kitano), is sent away by the higher-ups to mediate a dispute between two rival clans. He makes his reluctance apparent but he and his men do as they are told. The situation soon becomes clear- the entire assignment was a ruse to lure him away and steal his turf. He and his men hide away at a beach, and it is here that the film springs to life. While waiting for some course of action to emerge, be it to attack or be attacked, the wizened and weary men become kids again. The same male bonding is going on, but with that element of duty and fear removed, their situation becomes utopian. But, reality isn't far away, and the real world shines cruelly.
Kitano captures a surreal beauty to how this life of violence transforms in their secluded natural setting. The hint of violence is still there, it just evolves, like in a nighttime fireworks fight where Murakawa trumps the opposing team by shooting a pistol at them. Though on the surface it is a act of fun, it is also a symbolic sign that this isn't some moralists view of redemption. The immorality of their life is still at hand- the gun isn't thrown away, just used as a toy. The conclusion hints at a bleaker realization that they have lead a life of violence that is inescapable.
The DVD: Miramax. Billed under a banner that reads "DOUBLE FEATURE COLLECTION." I don't know if Miramax is going to make a habit of these double features, but is certainly a welcome idea.
Picture: Zatoichi and Sonatine are both presented in Anamorphic Widescreen. In comparison to the Japanese release, which I have, Miramax's Zatoichi transfer is far more colorful and sharp. There is a muddiness and muted tone to the Japanese release and all of the other DVD releases. I guess the muted look is intentional, though I'm not sure why, since the more vibrant colors on the Miramax transfer seems to fit the mood and tone of the film quite well.
Sonatine is a tad rough around the edges, some minor print spots, grain, and softness lead to a mediocre, but acceptable, transfer. The night scenes get the worst of it, with contrast details coming across very weak. Colors appear well balanced, from healthy flesh tones to the sunny beach locale.
Some minor aliasing is present on both films. In general, both get b grade transfers that are relatively decent, but still show room for improvement, especially the higher budgeted and newer Zatoichi.
Sound:Zatoichi has two Dolby 5.1 tracks, either original Japanese language or a lousy English dub with optional English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese subtitles. The synth score works surprisingly well, As I said before, the film is full of rhythmic sequences where the score and ambient sounds merge. The action, where the swords clash sharply, has force and good deep bass response. Sonatine is much more simple and basic Japanese or French stereo tracks with optional English or Spanish subtitles.
Sonatines subtitles have a slight lag. It isn't more than a second but it is a bit bothersome. Subtitles should always pop up the moment dialogue is spoken, not only is it easier to match the voice inflection with the words, but it also makes it easier to keep up with dialogue heavy films- luckily Sonatine isn't one of those, otherwise the sub lag would be more than just an annoyance.
Extras: Zatoichi-- Behind the Scenes Featurette (39:53)-- Interviews: Cinematographer (6:58), Production Designer (5:40), Costume Supervisor (6:58), and Master Swordsman (4:25)-- Sneek Peaks.
Sonatine-- Quentin Tarantino Intro and Outro, dated and fairly worthless clips used on the video release.-- Conversation with Takeshi Kitano (10:45). While this interview does glean some good insights, questions like "How did you feel about Quentin Tarantino picking up the film?" definitely skew this as a Miramax fluff piece.-- Sneak Peeks.
Conclusion: Well, it does have its fair share of grumbles (be it ugly menus, Sonatines subtitle lag, lack of the Japanese editions extras, or the grain on both prints), but this is still a great, inexpensive way to experience two works from a masterful film maker. Miramax weren't aiming for the perfect transfers both films deserve, but the presentation is certainly fine enough and the price is a steal, so, despite the faltering, it is hard not to recommend for fans of Japanese cinema and Kitano.