For those who were busy between 1962 and 1989 and accidentally missed the 26 previous Zatôichi features and over 100 Zatôichi TV episodes (all starring late Japanese icon Shintaru Katsu), here's the gist: The character is an itinerant early-19th-century semi-hero and former Yakuza who makes his living as a masseur and gambler. He also happens to be blind. He also happens to be able to destroy just about anyone with his mighty sword, which is cleverly disguised as a cane. James Bond, Zorro and the Lone Ranger would swiftly learn to bow to Zatôichi. Yoda would be a reasonably close match. He's a pop legend par excellence.
With this in mind, one senses that the risk in dusting off this franchise is about equal to redoing The Planet of the Apes -- and they're still fumigating some cinemas after that colossal stink bomb. All the more reason to cheer Japan's artsy maverick Takeshi Kitano (Fireworks) for rising to the occasion and doing a crackerjack job of "re-envisioning." By most accounts, Chieko "Mama" Saito, a septuagenarian showbiz entrepreneur and former stripper (and friend-investor of Katsu, who died in '97) enlisted Kitano to exhume and revivify Zatôichi. The gamble has paid off gloriously, springing Kitano from the art-house ghetto and launching a roaring crowd-pleaser that'll have Hollywood hustling to learn fancy new moves.
Upping the ante, Kitano not only writes and directs but also stars as Zatôichi, under his performing name, Beat Takeshi. You'd never guess that he was lukewarm toward the original material, so skillfully does he invest his energy in this updating. From the opening moments, with the blind swordsman sitting beside a rural lane, his coy poise and cropped, bleached hair setting him apart from the locals like some weird, heretofore unknown Asian Pet Shop Boy, one can sense the reinvention at work. The scene involves a band of smugly cruel marauders, several dismemberments and gallons of blood, and it functions with the precision of a carefully sharpened hook. We immediately know we're in for generous, outrageous, theatrical fun.
Kitano could have kept the whole film at this level, letting the elegant, hyperkinetic fights take over his whole endeavor, but instead he strikes a fine balance between extreme violence and sensitive characterization. The plot itself is but a trifle, a launchpad: A notorious gang headed by nasty kingpin Ginzo (Ittoku Kishibe) is harassing a helpless village, and only you-know-who can save the day. Within his first period production, however, Kitano gives us a fully plausible environment filled with complex interactions, from the kindly widow who affords him lodging to the insane neighbor boy who screams through some wacky scenes in a loincloth, pretending he's a tough-guy samurai. You can probably see the same behavior wherever you are right now, which makes it all the funnier.
In terms of more serious matters, the dastardly Ginzo gang means business, and among the wreckage in their wake they have left two sly geishas (Daigoro Tachibana and Yuko Daike). These partners may or may not both be female (which leads to plenty of levity), but as they croon and strum their shamisen with ever-increasing venom, we know there's going to be a nasty confrontation. When the Ginzo dare to mess with Zatôichi and his jolly gambling partner Shinkichi (Gadarukanaru "Guadalcanal" Taka) directly, strangers become allies in the battle against the baddies.
Except there's a hitch. Ginzo and Co. have acquired the services of a masterful unemployed samurai named Gennosuke Hattori (national superstar Tadanobu Asano, cooler than Japanese steel), a killing machine who's much younger than Zatôichi and can see. Additionally, he's got an ailing wife (Yui Natsukawa) as inspiration to do his job very well and reap the ill-gotten rewards. Stunning, clanging, lightning-quick skewerings are guaranteed.
"But what," you may ask, "if I don't like watching people die graphically and violently?" Relax and enjoy -- this isn't vulgarity like Saving Private Ryan. Rather, Kitano's digitally enhanced bloodbaths conscientiously ride the edge of cheesy fakeness, which, astoundingly, complements the compassionate character studies and silly bits remarkably well. And lest you forget, there's a reason this man calls himself Beat, and it isn't because he's exhausted. You're in store for churning rhythms, a sometimes synth-heavy score reminiscent of French composer Eric Serra (Léon), pulsing peasant percussion, utterly sensational Taiko drums and a finale that may literally have you dancing in the aisles. Some may accuse artful Kitano of "selling out" to make this "mainstream" movie, but it's still very much an art film by American standards, and it just about defines a whole new genre.