Sean McTiernan isn’t a farmer but he would like to be a samurai.
Initially, maniac filmmaker Beat Takeshi’s announcement he was going to make a costume drama called Zatoichi was given a muted response at best. Zatoichi is of one of Japanese cinema’s most fondly remembered icons, a blind masseur and master swordsman who sliced his way through over a score of movies during the 60s and 70s. Anytime a director, particularly a maverick like Beat Takeshi (or Takeshi Kitano, if you’re his mam) declares they are going to do their own version of a beloved property, it’s usually a sign that vanity and bullshit is afoot. And when said director announces he’s going to play the iconic character himself, that’s when you really have to start ringing the Shyamalan bell.
Thankfully, 2003’s Zatoichi was far from bloated and self-indulgent. Instead it was sleek, quiet film that honored the past and looked to the future in equal measure. You could even call it a “mumblecore swordsman” movie, but then we’d have to kill you where you stand. An infamous actor/director/gameshow host, Kitano was cajoled into interpreting Zatoichi by a strip-club owner named Chieko Saito. Saito was a good friend of Shintaro Katsu, the actor who played Zatoichi in 26 films, from 1962 to 1989, and is most closely associated with the character. Once Katsu died 1997, Saito wanted to continue his legacy (oh and keep making money as the owner of the Zatoichi copyright). She befriended and eventually persuaded a reluctant Beat Takeshi to make a new entry into the series.
Because of this, the film is burned neither by a need to be faithful nor a need to rebel against any supposed need to be faithful. Takeshi weaves a intricate tale of gang wars, revenge and a transsexual geisha, all with occasional intervention from the blind, gambling swordsman played by Takeshi himself. Stylistically the movie both honours its predecessors while giving it a distinctly modern edge. Zatoichi’s muted colour palette, oddly naturalistic conversation and awkward movement give the old sword master’s story a modern glint.
Every scene of Zatoichi presents new minor characters, growing exponentially weirder as each one arrives. Sure, they’re not all gold: the almost-naked, tubby dude who shouts and runs into things isn’t going to change anyone’s life (unless you recognise yourself in him, in which case: your college friends hate you, your parents still love you, come home). However, the movie lives on director Takeshi’s Kitano performance. Luckily, Kitano, also known as Beat Takeshi, seems to have free and unlimited access to earth’s supply of charisma.
Takeshi is an acclaimed actor and director, usually in movies that start with a lot of Yakuza guys in suits looking cool and end with a lot less Yakuza guys, with those remaining still admirably looking as cool as possible. Oh and in the middle, there’s usually a great deal of stylish murdering going on. However, if you’re not familiar with said movies you probably will recognise him as either the insane host of physical endurance game show Takeshi’s Castle or the psychotic teacher in Champion All Time Coolest Movie contender Battle Royal. Safe to say, Takeshi is used to generating quiet intensity at will and is incredibly comfortable with skewering it with humour. He’s perfect as the enigmatic blind swordsman, managing to seem both unassuming and deadly at every turn. Even the Takeshi’s bizarre insistence on keeping his recently bleached blond hair didn’t ruin the character, instead adding to Zatoichi’s mystique.
Zatoichi feels unusually still and deliberate for a movie with some many sword fights and so much physical comedy. The whole movie seems to mirror the playful, measured style of the blind swordsman, knowing how fuck shit up in few moves as possible but unafraid to cut a giant fart and hobble around waiting for some high five reciprocation. Even the gore in the movie seems placed just so. This is mostly because it was created mostly in post-production.
Dudes on horror movie podcasts, of which there is a seemingly-unending supply, love to get pissed off at stuff. I guess you don’t commit to bellowing into a Skype connection once a week unless you’ve got an axe to grind. Across many of the shows however, the same sources of anger keep rearing their ugly heads. None of these dudes (or ladies, the gender balance in horror podcasting is better than you’d imagine) can seem to figure out how these blasphemous remakes of 70s horror movies keep getting produced, despite, you know, the vast return on comparatively small investment those movies usually have. They can’t countenance how little Twilight appeals to them, most of them apparently unaware not all movies with vampires in them are intended for inscrutable 30-year-old nerds to stare at from beneath their protective layer of cheeto dust.
They are baffled by the lack of a DVD for a movie they consider a cult classic, usually not being able to make the connection that if the cast and crew of said movie are willing to do extensive interviews with their podcast, despite listenership plateauing at 60 several hundred episodes ago, it’s probably not got the huge audience they continue to insist it has. These guys also hate David Lynch. A reasonable stance perhaps, but the pure venom and spite most of them can summon at any time for Lynch isn’t the kind of anger you direct at a guy who buttons his top button and makes odd movies. Instead, you’d swear Lynch drove to their High School in a convertible, beat the piss out of them and then called the rest of the school outside to watch him fuck whichever parent they had more respect for on the hood of said convertible.
Why bring up the many triggers of the podcasting human ? Well there’s one thing they’re mostly pretty spot-on about: CGI blood. For the exploitation and horror movie fan, CGI blood is almost always a goddamn scourge. It’s always completely obvious, it looks not-good unnatural (as opposed to Giallo-blood unnatural, which is amazing) and robs us of the mental image of a crazed man throwing buckets of sticky red mixture over a woman who was hoping to be on Californication. That’s what we paid for and taking that from us isn’t right.
However, Zatochi, thankfully, shows just what CGI blood can really achieve. Takeshi said he wanted the blood to look like “blooming flowers” and the greyish blood still stands out against the washed-out colour palette of the movie, lingering in the air just long enough to give the fight scenes the feel of a graphic novel. Far from the Evil Dead-style arterial spray of the old Shaw Brothers sword-and-slash classics, every plume of red here comes in at just the right time, creating an unreal clarity to the clashes and giving the feeling of the mysterious other sense the blind swordsman must have. The violence in Zatoichi is still fucking brutal but it’s a controlled, measured, graceful type of brutality,the sort of thing Dr Dre probably thought he was exuding while he was frowning in the Kush video, wearing that tiny lady’s jacket.
Zatoichi ends with a tap dancing scene that’s incredible as it is innocuous. It’s easy to understand the need for catharsis after the events of the movie which, although often blackly funny, do include loneliness, pedophilia, addiction, madness and death. Although the climatic confrontation offers some release, it’s still a messy and grim scene. Ending the whole thing with a kinetic blast of tap dancing in sandals to traditional drumming is just what audiences needed to leave Zatoichi happy. As if that wasn’t enough, the hero characters all line-up to join in with the fun. It’s a scene that could have easily come across as a shmaltzy piece of try-hard crap. There’s a similar scene at the end of Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back that manages to do just that. But the tone of Zatoichi, with its subtle theatricality and endearing characters, just make it work. It’s good, but it’s not the real musical masterpiece the movie has to offer.
It’s fitting the two really memorably scenes in Zatoichi be so subtle, casual and unimportant to the overall story. It’s a shaggy dog movie to its core, working better as a collection of moments than a cohesive story. No moments are more understated and beautiful than the scenes of manual labour that bookend the movie. Here we see men working in a field. Listen closer however and you’ll hear sound of their trowels mesh effortlessly with the background music.
There’s something incredibly touching about this that’s hard to put a finger on. It’s a serious achievement, not only in ingenuity and technical but that it’s deployed so casually it’s perfectly possible to miss it the first time around. Not only that but there isn’t one set rhythm, the men move as one instrument, changing tempo and tone. Even the upward sweep of the trowel starts to contribute, however quietly, to the rhythm. Then this rhythm continues on as part of the background music. It could be saying a lot of things: that although murderers are the heroes in these movies there is genuine honour in living a normal life or that Zatoichi’s senses are so fine-tuned he hears the music in the universe and that’s what enables him to cleave his enemies in half without being able to see them. What you reading into this small scene is not important, it won’t help you divine why exactly it is so oddly touching. It’s just that its there, setting up the rest of the movie’s marriage of old stories with new story-telling with absolutely zero fanfare or showiness. It’s a piece of craft, simple but brilliant.
The composer, Keiichi Suzuki, also created the music for Uzamaki, a flawed adaptation of a perfectly horrific manga. Far more importantly however, he also composed music for the video games Earthbound and Mother. Two of the most universally-praised adventure games of all time, Earthbound and Mother are revered as impeccably crafted. This background in game music certainly informs the composition Suzuki did for Zatoichi, managing, in line with the rest of the movie, to sound both oddly traditional and definitely modern. His history composing for games may also have sparked the idea of ambient sound effects meshing with the soundtrack. Whatever inspired them, both scenes are the kind of artful, special moments made all the more special by their lack of fanfare and, sadly, their own rarity.