Too often in America, talented International Actors and Directors are well-kept cinema secrets and Takeshi Kitano is no exception. Known here in the States primarily for his dark Yakuza pictures (Violent Cop, Sonatine, Fireworks, Brother), Kitano also happens to be a comedian (as 'Beat' Takeshi, which is also the name he acts under), author and Television personality in his home country of Japan and is considered by many to be the epitome of cool. With the film Zatoichi, he incorporates the many disparate elements from his repertoire to create one of his most accessible and endearing works, as well as a worthy addition to the film legacy of the Zatoichi character.
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 three main players, Kitano makes sure that they all find themselves in the same town, which is run with an iron fist by the local Yakuza. Ichi boards with a spinster and manages to reunite her with her gambling addicted nephew after rescuing him from a local dice game. Ichi didn't set out to rescue anyone, as he is a very accomplished gambler whose heightened senses tell him which way to bet, but who had to act quickly when thugs caught on to his scam. 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 local Yakuza, 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 Ichi can help avenge the Geisha's parents and free the town from their oppressors.
To say that this 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 reminds you why you started watching movies. It's a perfect escapist fantasy that contains the music of life and joy in every scene, culminating in an all out dance number that features several key members of the cast. For any diehards worried that Kitano made his interpretation 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.
The DVD: Intro Media – Korean Special Edition 2 Disc Set [REGION 3/NTSC]
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. The picture is exceptionally crisp and clear, but I was surprised to see that Kitano used such a basic color palette (lots of drab, earthy tones) for most of this film. However, it's a conscious choice by the director and not a poor transfer as evidenced by the final scenes and their lush set design and costuming.
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Japanese language with optional English, Japanese and Korean subtitles. I don't speak Japanese, but the sound effects and soundtrack were very vibrant, and the music I mentioned earlier is ever present with the excellent sound design and presentation on this disc. The translation seems to be spot on and the subtitles are large and easy to read without distracting from the picture.
Extras: There is an entire second disc of just Extras, but alas, not a subtitle in sight, so I am limited in my descriptions of what these contain. There is a Photo Gallery, several Television Spots and Trailers for the film, a very interesting Making of Featurette which utilizes branching DVD technology in order to take you even deeper into the movie with several Cast and Crew Interviews and a series of Video Production Notes which document the day to day events on the set. Overall, these are some very nice extras, which would have been FANTASTIC if only they'd have gotten someone to translate them.
Conclusion: If this movie doesn't make you say Takeshi Kitano is the Man, then I'm afraid there is no hope for you. Certainly not everyone got into his bleak and violent takes on the Japanese underworld, but surely this is a film that everyone can stand up and cheer for. Yes, this movie has violence and yes, this movie has blood but it also has a happy ending that leaves you feeling nothing short of euphoric. So, please, get this DVD and remember what you liked about watching movies in the first place.