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A Japanese region 2 DVD review of ZATOICHI by Slarek
 

Zatoichi, the latest film from director Kitano Takeshi and his most commercially successful to date on home turf, is always going to play differently to a western audience than a Japanese one. The original Zatoichi films are as much part of Japanese culture as Bond films are to ours, and the best are every bit as highly regarded (with good reason, I should add), whereas in the UK these films remain largely unseen and to many unknown. Thus a Japanese audience is inevitably going to approach this new film as a remake of fondly regarded works from years past, whereas a sizeable majority of the potential UK audience will be coming at it relatively fresh. For them its most commercially significant element is its director/star, whose track record includes the electrifying Yakuza films Boiling Point and Sonatine, the humanist dramas with a comic edge A Scene at the Sea and Kikujiro, the extraordinary combination of violence, comedy and tenderness that was Hana-Bi, and the bold and compellingly experimental Dolls, films that have built him a solid fan base and made him one of the most consistently compelling film-makers working today.

For the uninitiated, a little plot. Blind masseur and skilled swordsman Zatoichi wanders the countryside, helping those in need of assistance, gambling at every opportunity and doing battle with anyone who attempts to assault him. By chance he falls in with the kind-hearted O-Ume and her hapless nephew Shinkichi, and through him encounters geishas O-Kinu and O-Sei, who have returned to the town to seek revenge for the murder of their family ten years earlier at the hands of a ruthless Ginzo gang. Also in town is skilled ronin Hattori, who has agreed to serve as a bodyguard for the Ginzo boss for pay that will help his ailing wife, putting him in inevitable conflict with the two determined geishas and their blind but deadly companion.

One of the first first things that strikes you here about Takeshi the director is how evenly he distributes the on-screen time of his characters – were it not for the fact that Zatoichi is the title of the film, you would often be pushed to regard him as the central figure (the opening and closing shots belong to him alone, though). But this is not the story of just one man, and plays more as an ensemble piece in which Zatoichi is a key player rather than the lead. His gambling scenes aside, he tends to hover in the background and let the other stories play out until the need for confrontation and action catapults him to centre stage.

There's also a clear shift in Kitano's handling of action. Violence has been a key element of many of the director's previous films and he has often been direct about its presentation, evident in the physical assaults in Boiling Point, the stand-up bar-room gunfight in Sonatine and any number of shoot-outs in Brother. There has always been an unfussy brutality to these scenes, which display little of the choreographed quality of Sam Peckinpah or Hong Kong action cinema, instead having an almost observational feel. Increasingly, though, Takeshi has balanced this with what has become a signature use of editing, with the violence itself is not shown at all, bypassed when the build-up cuts straight to the consequences. Then again, the violence in question is sometimes horrible enough to warrant this approach – the chopsticks that are stabbed into a Yakuza's eye in Hana-Bi and slammed up the noses of a rival gang member in Brother do not need to be seen to send shudders down your back.

More often Takeshi uses this trick for comic effect, as in the burning of the teacher's new car and the confrontation with the big guy at the boxing hall in Kids Return, and the hilarious near drowning at the hotel swimming pool in Kikujiro. Its comic use is still here, as when Zatoichi tosses a log and knocks out the samurai wannabe who spends his days charging around the outside of the house, but the violence, when it comes, is explicit, brutal, and shot and edited with sometimes electrifying energy and economy. This is not Hong Kong action cinema of the sort lifted by Tarantino et al, but Japanese action cinema in the classic style, where fights can be settled not with extended swordplay and leaping around, but with a single, perfectly judged blow. Thus those expecting a big climactic battle may be in for a surprise, but for anyone who knows their Japanese cinema it will prompt a fond twinge of recognition, irresistibly recalling the climactic stand-off in Kurosawa's Sanjuro. Indeed, a Kurosawa influence can be felt throughout the film, with settings, story elements, a rain-drenched sword fight and a comic training sequence echoing Seven Samurai, and the band of outsiders that Zatoichi finds himself part of has the same flavour as the rag-tag group of adventurers in The Hidden Fortress, complete, of course, with its master swordsman. It is to Kitano's credit that these elements never feel poached, unlike any number of recent American martial-arts influenced works.

While the blood-letting may not be new for Japanese action cinema or Kitano's own work, his decision to take his first steps down the CGI route are only partially successful. While the new technology does add a dimensional physicality to the fights – swords thrust backwards burst out through the bodies of their victims, and in one memorably wince-inducing moment cut down the shaft of an opponent's weapon and slice off part of his hand – what surprises is that some of the effects here aren't that convincing. Early on a sword bursts out of the back of a would-be assailant and pauses just long enough for you to see the wobble that indicates an effect not completely matched with the action it has been motion tracked to. But this is the curse of action-based CGI – if not done perfectly, it looks a little false, but even when convincingly executed the often ludicrous nature of the action being depicted still brands it as fake, just glossily so.

But if the CGI sometimes fails to fully convince, this is a very small fly in an otherwise rather gorgeous ointment. Zatoichi still very much bears the director's distinctive stamp, especially in the prominence of the characters and their history and motivation within the framework of the story. In particular, the vengeful sister and her geisha-dressed brother have a compellingly handled back story, one that a Japanese friend assures me is partly based on a factual and well-documented case. Even Hattori, the supposed villain of the piece, is sympathetically presented, a ronin fighting not out of greed or malice but to procure funds for medical care for his ailing wife. Kitano also builds a degree of layering through the introduction of a character who acts as a bad guy within Hattori's own story, blurring the concept of hero and villain so beloved of western cinema.

Kitano delights in offbeat background characters and fully rounded and engaging lead players, and the film is well served by an excellent cast. As Zatoichi, the enigmatic director/actor manages to avoid the intimidating ghost of Katsu Shintaro and make the role pretty much his own. His closed-eyed twitchiness and shuffling walk may make for an unlikely-looking action hero, but when he does spring into action it's something to see, and his movements are as precise and athletic as a man half his age. As his eventual opponent Hattori, Asano Tadanobu (who appeared previously with Takeshi in Oshima's Gohatto) cuts an imposing figure and is utterly believable as the driven and dangerously skillful ronin. As the two geishas O-Kinu and O-Sei, Daike Yuuko and Tachibana Daigoro bring an emotional gravitas to well written and intriguing characters, and as the motherly O-Ume, Michiyo Ookuso displays a no-nonsense strength of character that shines in her strong features, confident body language and line delivery.

Being a Kitano film, as well as a Zatoichi one, the violence is tempered by moments of sometimes broad character humour: the training sequence in which the film's hapless comic foil Shinkichi attempts to instruct a group of dopey locals in the art of combat, only to be repeatedly hit on the head; O-Ume's amused reaction to Zatoichi's made-up fake eyes; the ambitious pair who want to try their new sword on a passing blind man (guess who) and suffer the consequences; the warrior who, in his enthusiasm to attack Zatoichi, draws his sword with such gusto he cuts his friend's arm.

None of which prepares you for the finale, a musical tap-dance number choreographed by the dance group The Stripes. It's a very real gamble on Takeshi's part, but astonishingly it works a treat, in no small part due to the lively skill of the dancers, the intoxicating rhythm of the music, and the scene's thundering exuberance. Its arrival is actually telegraphed by two earlier glimpses of four peasants in a rice field (played by the dancers), first rhythmically working the crops then dancing like lunatics; later they are seen building a stage for the festival with tools that hammer, saw and scrape out a beat, their music matched by Kitano's tuneful camera placement and editing. Indeed, it was apparently the need to match a musical score to these already set rhythms that saw Takeshi for the first time break with long-time music collaborator Joe Hisaishi in favour of Suzuki Keiichi, who provides a splendid score throughout, but really comes into his own in the final scene.

Zatoichi looks great on a first viewing, but four screenings later I was in love with the film. With the rise of younger Japanese directors such as Nakata Hideo, Miike Takashi and Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Takeshi still manages to make films that are so distinctive, so inventive, so beautifully developed and realised, that despite his potential old man status, he remains as fresh a talent as the day he first turned to cinema as a medium of artistic expression. Zatoichi is probably his most commercially minded feature yet, and in some ways his most accessible for western audiences, but that should not be taken as a criticism. With Zatoichi, Takeshi has found possibly the ideal way to blend the historical, the traditional, the populist and the artistic elements of Japanese cinema in a single, really rather wonderful package.

sound and vision

Framed at 1.78:1 and anamorphically enhanced for widescreen TVs, this is on the whole a very pleasing transfer, boasting a good level of sharpness and detail and no visible dirt or dust marks. There is some grain evident in some interior scenes, but this is never distracting. Black levels are solid throughout. Kitano uses a reduced colour palette for many scenes, the opening having a muted, earthy look and the night scenes displaying a bluish hue. Thus the colours tend to look less than vibrant than on many modern films, but this is deliberate, and the costumes of the finale are bright without looking over saturated. A good print, well transferred to disk.

There are two subtitle options available, Japanese and English, the latter being well translated and containing no obvious grammatical or spelling errors.

There are two options here, Dolby 2.0 and Dolby 5.1, both in the original Japanese. Though most of the dialogue is front and centre, the music and some of the atmospheric sounds are spread far wider, and here the difference between the two tracks is quite dramatic. One scene where this is most effectively demonstrated sees Shinkichi borrow a beaten-up umbrella to go for a walk in the rain – on the stereo track the rainfall and score sit sedately at the front, but on the 5.1 track they are louder, clearer (you can genuinely hear water sounds that are just not audible on the stereo track) and come from every direction, filling the room with falling rain. The final musical number is especially impressive in 5.1, the music, drum beats, tap-dancing, clapping and chanting reproduced with wonderful fidelity and clarity, the subwoofer making its presence discreetly but effectively felt. This contributes in no small way to this scene's very real energy and sense of fun.

extra features

Simple though it is, the main menu is very nicely done, with Zatoichi's name written across the screen in kanji, complete with a sound effect that follows the writing across the front sound stage. It settles down to perhaps the most famous publicity still of the film (and the cover of the DVD), set against an animated background and accompanied by a crash of thunder and an ominous electronic rumbling. However, once you are here there is very little on offer on this particular disk. All the options, as you'd expect, are in Japanese.

The chapter menu does contain clips from the film, which I always think looks a little classy. Below this you can select the sound and subtitle options, but this can also be altered while the film is playing.

Finally there is a trailer menu. The cinema trailer is in fine shape, is framed 1.78:1 and anamorphically advanced, with a Dolby 2.0. It runs for 1 minute 24 seconds. A second trailer runs for just under a minute, is similarly framed but non-anamorphic. Also included are two 1.78:1, non-anamorphic TV spots, one 15 seconds, the other 30 seconds.

summary

With a renewed cinematic interest in all things Japanese being demonstrated by western cinema, Zatoichi's arrival on these shores is a timely one. Lost in Translation is all very well, but it's still ultimately an American tale told through American eyes with American characters, a somewhat 'safe' viewing experience for the unadventurous viewer weaned on western cinema. But audiences and popular critical response do seem to be changing. The sheer wonder and imagination of Spirited Away has effectively kicked both Disney and the recently departed Pixar in the creative balls, and after the tiresome Hollywoodisation of Japanese warrior codes and combat that was The Last Samurai, Zatoichi arrives widely hailed as the real deal. Although made by and for the Japanese, the very lack of the messy excesses of Tarantino and the weary posturing of a sumurai-dressed Tom Cruise may see the film find real favour with a discerning international audience. Zatoichi is less an actioner than an effectively low key character drama, spiced with bursts of superbly choreographed violence, wittily handled comedy and a thumping good musical finale. It not only rewards repeated viewings, but demands them.

At the time of writing Zatoichi seems to be getting a wider distribution than any previous Kitano-directed film, but outside of cities and independent cinemas it can still be hard to track down. If you can't get to see it in the cinema, or you want to see it again and you cannot wait to see what English DVD distributors do with it, then at present there are three DVDs of the film available. This movie-only Japanese release has recently been followed by a two-disk special edition, which boasts a substantial collection of interviews and making-of featurettes on disk 2, though none of these are subtitled. Both of these disks are region 2, so providing your TV can handle the NTSC signal they will be playable on any UK DVD player. A similar, two disk special edition is available on region 3.

 


The Japanese convention of surname first has been used throughout this review.

Zatoichi

Japan 2003
116 mins
director
Kitano Takeshi
starring
Beat Takeshi
Asano Tadanobu
Natsukana Yui
Ōsuku Michiyo
Taka Gadarunakaru
Tachibana Diagorō

DVD details
Region 2 (Japan)
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
Japanese
subtitles
Japanese
English
extras
Trailers
distributor
Bandai
release date
Out now
review posted
1 May 2004
updated
11 December 2008

related reviews
The Takeshi Kitano Collection overview
Violent Cop
Boiling Point
A Scene at the Sea
Getting Any?
Kikujiro
Dolls
Takeshis'

See all of Slarek's reviews