zatoichiZatoichi is Kitano’s bloodiest and most accessible film. It’s about a blind swordsman who wanders the countryside, performing acts of heroism. Kitano uses stock elements of chambara (the samurai period piece) to elevate the film to something strange, to something more personal. It’s a crowd-pleaser with the character observation unique to him. He reinvigorates a stagnant genre.

Or maybe “reinvigorates” is the wrong word. The word implies that Zatoichi is a foundation on which others can build, but that isn’t necessarily true. The film is too idiosyncratic for that to be the case. His hair a peroxide blonde, Kitano plays Zatoichi as a rather mysterious man, taciturn but not unfriendly. He is, actually, the friendliest of Kitano’s tough guys, dispensing the mean-spirited violence his films often revel in.

The story is simple and familiar. Through violence and crooked gambling, the Yakuza put the squeeze on a village. Zatoichi wanders into town, fights for the good side, then leaves. The Yakuza has a social boss, and it has a secret boss who runs things right under people’s noses. There’s the honorable ronin, who must sell his skills in order to buy medicine for his consumptive wife. There’s the kind older woman who lets Zatoichi sleep in her house. There’s the traveling geisha who seeks revenge against the Yakuza. All are stock elements, satisfying if never surprising.

Kitano’s twist is to use them not only as plot points and cardboard cutouts, but to give them lives of their own, to give resonance to a standard plot. The editing is the same — he inverts expectations. Where rhythm and pacing are expected in the violent scenes, there is anticipation followed by sudden bursts of violence. Look at the swordfight between Zatoichi and Genosuke the ronin. They fight on the beach, standing and staring at each other, each one preparing for the other person’s move. Then, like that, the fight is over.

Placid scenes are the opposite, where a long walk by farmers is spliced to the rhythm of their hoeing. All this pays off at the end, as the film concludes with a Stomp-like dance that involves most of the cast (even those killed).

These ecstatic moments — the violence and the near MTV-like excess of editing for the musical interludes — contrast with the smaller moments to give the characters nuance. The simplistic plot frees Kitano to have a traditional set-up and conclusion, whereas in the middle he plays at themes known to him (e.g., flashbacks of tragedy, self-sacrifice, and kindness).

Zatoichi ends with a surprising revelation about the main character that brings the film’s themes to a head. Zatoichi and the Yakuza are masters of people’s fate. While said people dance and celebrate what brings them together, the gangsters and the swordsman die. Control of the situation brings them nothing. In the end, the townsfolk dance, and Zatoichi stumbles.

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