Since his universally praised masterpiece Hana Bi, Takeshi Kitano has had critics divided.
Kikujiro, his charming tale of a lumbering loudmouth escorting a hopeful boy to his real mother, and Dolls, the deeply moving trio of tales about love, some seemed to worry that he was going soft. Brother, his first foray into American movie making, was immersed in the violent gangster world for which a western audience knew him best but it was felt that the US had led to a dilution of his vision.
Zatoichi finds Takeshi basking in universal acclaim again via his reimagining of this renowned character from í60s Japanese cinema. With the Kill Bills sandwiching Zatoichiís release, it is obviously hoped that a film crammed with Samurai swordplay and liberal blood spraying will entice a crowd not normally seen queuing up to see subtitled films. If Tarantinoís expert pilfering influence is felt at the box office, then Kill Bill has achieved something worthwhile.
The Zatoichi series began in 1962, with 25 films being released in little more than a decade. Zatoichi is a charming, blind masseur who enjoys gambling and has the ability to slice any opponent open in a split second, whether they are an idiot chancer or a highly trained Ronin. Much like the man with no name, the fugitive and the littlest hobo, Zatoichi travels from town to town righting wrongs.
Takeshiís reworking stays true to the original characterisation and his visual and aural flair creates a thunderously entertaining adventure that has far more depth than the thin slop of Hollywood.
Zatoichiís world is populated by the vengeful, the guilty and the foolish, as well as a far more entertaining and beautiful transvestite killer than Michael Caine ever was.
From the first minute, we are projected straight into a world of lightning action and humour, Zatoichi dispensing with two lumbering fools who think they have the better of him in a split second of blood spurts. Their entourage hamfistedly attempt to help, injuring themselves with their clumsy sword draws on the way.
Throughout the film, the sword is seen as a tool of both death and slapstick. However, this is not the bulging-eyed slapstick of Jackie Chan but the deadpan slapstick of a master film-maker and humourist.
Zatoichi wanders into a town controlled by feuding greedy gangsters. Other residents include two apparently beautiful women, who combine their musicianship and dance style with strangulation and quick-footed murder, and a retired Ronin who must return to his bodyguard work to provide money for his dying wife.
Takeshi is an intriguing actor, his shambling gait, twitching face and often near-vacuous expressions belying his grace and speed when action is required. His Zatoichi is almost silent, giggling childishly at othersí pronouncements and creating beautiful slapstick from wood chopping. He is the friendliest-looking death machine the screen has had since Cujo the rabid dog.
Fools and imbeciles provide much of the humour, from the fat half-wit Samurai wannabe screaming round houses with a spear and loincloth to the gambler who becomes obsessed with the transvestite revenger and attempts to gain similar beauty by plastering his broad middle-aged face with make up. The poignancy of the gamblerís auntís house being burnt down is beautifully combined with the neighbourís confused appraisal of his make-up-plastered face.
This may also see the start of Kitanoís musical phase. Percussive workmen provide a soundtrack via their tilling and hammering, and the film contains a full-on Technicolor chorus line number at the end, performed by the surviving cast.
Few directors could combine slapstick, action and musical, but Kitano achieves the feat with breezy ease.
In Japan, Takeshi was best known as part of a hugely popular, broad and noisy comedy double act, and some viewers here will have seen his psychotic Itís A Knockout show, Takeshiís Castle. It remains an immense achievement that a man famed for his coarse TV humour continues to create such masterpieces of underplaying and subtle humour. Could Joe Pasquale have a secret hankering to remake Last Year at Marienbad?
Zatoichi is on general release.