Think `Beat' Takeshi Kitano and think Yakuza movies filled with murky morals and staccato bursts of stylised violence. Then think again, because the likes of Boiling Point, Sonatine and Brother have only ever been part of the story. A stand-up, painter and writer who's also helmed drama, comedy and romance (take a look at 2002's Dolls), Kitano's as much auteur as action hero.
Zatoichi sees Kitano the writer/director archly rearrange Samurai flick clichés, while Kitano the star largely sticks to slice'n'dice basics. It's a balancing act carried off with verve, humour and panache. And that's a big deal, considering the character Zatoichi's massive iconic status in Japan. Believe us, Kitano couldn't afford to get this one wrong.
That he didn't is clear from the moment we first see the apparently defenceless Zatoichi, blind and bent, as he rests by a roadside. A group of thieves approaches. One quick impersonation of a mobile food-processor later and the swordsman has cut his wannabe muggers to pieces. It's the first in a series of blood-splattered, flawlessly choreographed action sequences, including a stunning rain-plastered homage to Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.
But Zatoichi doesn't just impress with its set-pieces. A touch of flab aside, Kitano's script is a joy, delighting in the characters' ambiguities and jumping from the backstory of geishas Osei and Okinu to the slapstick of bumbling wastrel Shinkichi without missing, ahem, a beat. Even Tadanobu Asano's sinister Samurai - - the top Ginzo gang hireling - - is far more than a two-dimensional bad guy. Instead, we're presented with a doleful mercenary slowly sacrificing his honour to pay his sick wife's medical bills.
And there's time for one final surprise, Zatoichi setting aside a few minutes for a full-blown song-and-dance number featuring the entire cast. Ludicrous? You bet, but that's the point: it's no more outrageous than a blind swordmaster offing his enemies with a combo of razor reflexes and bat-like hearing.
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A dazzling action flick to introduce the blind swordsman to a new wave of moviegoers. Not Kitano's best film, but certainly his most enjoyable.