Zatoichi (18)

More splits, kicks and turns than a chorus line
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The Independent Culture

For Western fans of new Japanese cinema, director-star Takeshi Kitano - known as "Beat" Takeshi in front of the camera - has been something of a contemporary classic over the past decade. In Japan, however, Kitano's auteur status apparently comes second to his fame as a TV host and comic, an inescapable fixture on nightly prime time. It's almost as if Jonathan Ross had a second career directing severely elegant high-art gangster pictures. Dweam on.

Since his early vehicles for himself, like Violent Cop and the dreamlike, near-perfect Sonatine, Kitano has increasingly seemed prone to sentimentalise his tough-guy-with-a-heart persona. Lately, he has also seemed directionless. Recently he veered from the crassly brutal yakuza thriller Brother to Dolls, an archly precious exercise that took the traditions of Japanese bunraku puppet theatre and dressed them up in Yamamoto frocks.

In his latest film Zatoichi, Kitano has found a new way to play tough yet sensitive, while making a more convincingly trad-Japanese film than Dolls. Its hero, the protagonist of 26 popular films made largely in the Sixties and Seventies, is a blind swordfighter and masseur wandering through the Japan of the Edo dynasty (the Western 19th century). What Kitano's version of Zatoichi will mean to Japanese audiences raised on the original I couldn't possibly guess.

But this film is likely to strike Kitano fans as his wittiest, most coherent and most enjoyable for some time. As martial arts films go, I can only agree with those critics who have hailed it as far superior to Kill Bill. And as a musical - of sorts - it wipes the floor with Chicago's feathered frou-frous.

Kitano plays Zatoichi as an impassive, monolithic figure: when not shot from behind, he's seen stooped, scowling, face screwed up. For reasons best known to Kitano, he also has bleached blond hair, unlike the original. Add to this Kitano's familiar bandy-legged stumble, made more faltering here, and a permanent facial tic (genuine, following a bike accident a few years ago), and Zatoichi seems to sniff out approaching trouble, like a hare. We first meet him sitting minding his own business, when a gang of warriors tries to steal his cane, actually a lethal swordstick. Zatoichi barely moves, but his blade goes snicker-snack, elegantly slicing through one man like fine foie gras, and sending the rest running for cover.

As the opening move in a martial arts film, this is remarkably provocative, since it all happens so fast that not only are we not sure what we've seen, but we can't even be sure that we've seen anything much at all. Is there really swordplay going on here, or is it all an effect of Kitano's own greased-lightning editing? Rather than feel short-changed, though, we're dazzled, just as we are when a magician pulls a baffling card trick and we can't be sure he's even laid a finger on the pack. Although much of the swordsmanship in Zatoichi appears to be real and skilled, the film is less about derring-do than about Kitano's sleight of hand and skill at misdirection. Zatoichi is not only blind - there's much play on him hearing, scenting, intuiting his moves - but he's also a masseur, a master of the deceptively soothing touch.

The story offers further proof of the often-stated affinities between the samurai drama and the Western. Zatoichi is the eternal stranger in town, drifting out of nowhere to befriend an elderly peasant woman, settle a gang war, and lock swords with the other fast draw around, a masterless samurai or ronin named Hattori (Tadanobu Asano).

Part of the film's bizarre charm is the way the story drifts around following its own airy logic, with Zatoichi as an amused, distracted observer rather than a truly central figure: smiling enigmatically to himself, the taciturn masseur could almost be dreaming up the narrative as he goes along. A complicated structure of flashbacks and digressions focuses on different characters following Kitano's whim: one minute we get a concise résumé of Hattori's disgrace as a warrior, the next we follow the extended history of two sibling geishas, one a boy in disguise - an unrelievedly dark story of family slaughter and transvestite child prostitution, which is about as strong a motivation as you could conceivably have for a revenge story.

Kitano's humour can sometimes be broad, to say the least, but in Zatoichi his burlesque really works. The whole action-and-honour ethos of the martial arts genre is sent up by having a half-naked fat boy, a samurai wannabe (should that be a Watanabe?) crash across the screen from time to time. Zatoichi's skills are broadly parodied by a clueless gambler (Guadalcanal Taka); the scene where he gives three farmhands a hopeless martial arts lesson is knockabout in the most literal sense, but it's breathtakingly timed farce, and breathtakingly silly too.

Dazzling as the action often is, its essence is that it never seems quite real. We're asked to believe in a swordsman who can slice with equal ease through paper, flesh and solid stone, which says something about Kitano's playful, taunting attitude towards his audience.

There's much blood-letting, but - heretical as this may seem to action purists - the blood is often digital, spurts of red that never look anything other than obviously painted in. Yet, rather than appear shoddy, this transparent artificiality gives the film a distinctive style, a sort of hand-made comic-strip quality. The effect is rather like a drawn version of a "SLASH!" or "SPURT!" sound effect, at once explosive and weightless.

Kitano has edited most of his own films, and in Zatoichi, editing is its own form of swordsmanship, or of dance. In a recurring musical gag, a group of peasants scything a field synchronise perfectly with the swish and zip of Keiichi Suzuki's percussive soundtrack. The film ends bizarrely on a musical high note as the assembled cast, including all the characters who have already been slaughtered, return for a thunderous tap routine that appears to mix traditional Japanese drums with Stomp!-style hoofing. This finale is completely incongruous, flamboyantly silly, and the most jubilant moment I've seen in a film for ages: judging by the grins, the cast are having a rare time of it. The only person missing from the hoedown is Kitano, who saves the final moment for himself: a pratfall that's at once slapstick and entirely enigmatic, as if he's determined to send us out of the cinema grinning and scratching our heads.