Takeshi "Beat Takeshi" Kitano occupies a curious place in the pantheon of world cinema. When this quadruple threat actor/director/writer/editor was first introduced to a wide international audience with Hana-Bi (Fireworks) he was the coolest thing to come from the East since John Woo, Jackie Chan and the rest of the Hong Kong invasion. Fortunately for Takeshi, however, the freshness of his work hasn't withered in the glare of Hollywood, the way it has for John Woo, who has seen his once-startling action montage aesthetic (the "balletic" choreography) devolve into wearily formulaic action movie clich's. Although Kitano enjoyed a brief spurt of hipness when big city audiences subsequently discovered his older films like Sonatine and Violent Cop, he has yet to break through to the wider American consciousness. And apparently, his films have yet to break through the Japanese consciousness as well. The one conversation I've had about Kitano with a Japanese expat resulted in rolled eyes: "His movies aren't popular in Japan."
His movies might seem strange to Japanese audiences, because they constantly subvert that country's genre expectations. Hana-Bi, for example, starts out as a by-the-numbers cop movie before veering off into a character's painting career, slapstick comedy involving teenage punks and a heartbreaking subplot about a man and his dying wife.
Still, Kitano is a pop celebrity in Japan--but as the host of a daily comedy show. From what I've read, his program can be imagined as Conan O'Brien leading the Jackass crew. Then imagine this version of Conan O'Brien conducting a secret life as the toast of foreign film festivals. And imagine this person being the author of dozens of books and a very effective actor in other people's films, most notably the late Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale.
The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, marks a departure for Kitano in that it's a period film, and not only that, it's the most Japanese of period films--the samurai flick. (This is also the second release this month of such a film, following the marvelous Twilight Samurai.) The plot is your basic Yojimbo clean-up-the-town epic, but the laconic center of gravity in this film is the blind swordsman/hero, played by Beat Takeshi in an anachronistic bottle-blond Caesar haircut.
The blind Zatoichi is an itinerant and impoverished masseur who just happens to handle a sword better than anyone else around. At first, Zatoichi's only looking for a warm place to sleep in this Japanese Dodge City, which is being terrorized by a war between villainous upstart gangs and the slightly less evil old one. Along the way, he joins forces with a compulsive gambler and two geisha siblings who want to avenge the death of their family.
Thanks in part to a severe motorcycle accident a number of years ago, Kitano has a stony, inscrutable face animated only by a twitch, and as a result is a most minimalist performer (he makes Charles Bronson seem like Robin Williams). Here, however, he takes his self-restraint to a radical extreme by keeping his face turned away from the camera. There turns out to be a good reason for this.
We never learn much about the blind swordsman. Some of the old-timers in town seem to remember him from somewhere, but otherwise, his motives and indeed his personality remain obscure. Instead, the film's most developed subplot involves the geisha siblings who've been forced to live as prostitutes since they were orphaned--a premise Kitano may well have lifted from Mizoguchi's films, particularly Sansho the Bailiff. But here too, Kitano has a couple of surprises, and some very beautiful filmmaking in a sequence when the two geishas rehearse their song and dance routine, and the image dissolves to the two doing the same routine as desperate young street urchins.
Kitano seems to have shot a longer film than what is on display here, with intriguing subplots getting short-shifted. For example, Zatoichi's martial rival is a decent ronin who has hired himself out to the bad guys to earn money for his sick wife's life-saving medical treatment. Unfortunately, this tragedy--which could have warranted a film of its own--gets a sketchy, melodramatic treatment.
In between the character studies and some very goofy humor are scenes of bloody mayhem, done in Kitano's characteristically dynamic, and often funny, style. His editing idiom seems to be influenced by the French director Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob le Flambeur, Le Cercle Rouge) in that he employs brutal jump cuts to the violent action, to the gun being drawn, to the blood squirting out of the victim. Although the body count in Zatoichi is pretty much on a par with other samurai movies, Kitano takes the trouble to make each goon die in a satisfying and original way.
Kitano is far too original and intuitive a filmmaker to be burdened by academic or generic expectations. For an epilogue, after the film's plots have been resolved, Kitano gives us a tap dance finale, with all the kimono-clad survivors of the story dancing with a huge chorus of hoofers. With this scene's bizarre anachronism and theatricality, Kitano seems, at his core, to be most interested in entertaining himself, and, with any luck, the audience.