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Beyond his sly sense of comedy, Kitano has found another way to temper the graphic violence. He has always been the bridge between the formalist tradition of Japanese cinema (Ozu and Mizoguchi) and the postmodern ethic found in two cult-hero countrymen: the morosely nihilistic Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, Pulse) and the exuberantly nihilistic Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer). But with Zatoichi, Kitano adds something new, drawing a pure line from the choreographed, ritualistic Asian martial-arts genre to the similarly choreographed and ritualistic golden-age Hollywood musical, beginning with a field of laborers pounding earth in time to Keiichi Suzuki’s rollicking electronic score and leading to a blending of the delirious music-hall pizzazz of Yankee Doodle Dandy with 19th-century Kabuki theater. The hybrid is remarkable, as if Gene Kelly didn’t twirl around that lamppost in Singin’ in the Rainbut went after it with a sword.
Throughout the movie, Zatoichi’s blindness makes his world a welter of impressions, and by transporting us inside the swordsman’s head, Kitano creates a landscape full of rhythmic possibility. Zatoichi lives in a world of sound, and his ear seeks to craft sense and structure from all the confusion. His climactic, rain-drenched battle with Hattori is so poetic because of the care that Kitano takes in marrying the pounding of the rain to the trip-hammer beat of the duelists’ hearts. In Zatoichi, the anticipation of sudden violence goes beyond mere tension, rising to something like contemplation. To Zatoichi, the sudden, percussive deluge of a fallen enemy’s blood has the restorative power of rainfall. In a lesser director, such excess would become self-parody; in Kitano’s hands, excess becomes a sublime statement of Zen. The showers of blood are like a baptism, a confirmation that no matter how grisly the actions in which he engages, Zatoichi’s life is measured out in moments of wondrous and mysterious experience. Zatoichi is less about killing than it is about the long, quiet moments before it begins and the stunned calm that follows. One gets the sense that the only real crime is to offend Zatoichi’s gourmet ear.
As with Eastwood or Keaton, the center of a Kitano film is inevitably its iconic star. He’s more animated here than in the others in which he’s directed himself — freeing up the jester while reining in the ogre. And he’s beautifully counterbalanced by Asano, who, like Johnny Depp, works against his matinee-idol good looks. Asano’s face is a quicksilver canvas and, without even speaking, can radiate at one moment a venomous seething, and in the next a resigned melancholy. His performance provides a sober anchor to Kitano’s barely restrained jubilation. He’s the yin burdened by the weight of responsibility to Zatoichi’s carefree yang.
Although Zatoichi may disappoint some Kitano purists, who might think it a vanity piece or submission to popular taste — he’s even begun moving his camera — its pyrotechnics are still audacious and breathtaking. The film may not be his best, but it’s a worthy companion to Kill Bill and should draw attention to such earlier masterpieces as his sprung-gangster film Sonatine(1993) and the heartbreaking Fireworks(1997), the story of a brutal policeman and his dying wife that is, to my mind, the greatest film of the 1990s. Like Kitano himself, Zatoichi is a marriage of seemingly contradictory elements that somehow make a compelling whole — a little Ozu, a little Kurosawa and a whole lot of rock & roll.
THE BLIND SWORDSMAN: ZATOICHI | Written and directed by TAKESHI KITANO | Produced by MASAYUKI MORI and TSUNEHISA SAITO | Released by Miramax Films | At the ArcLight
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