I admit it. What I don’t know about samurai or martial arts flicks would fill up a thousand Thomas Video stores. I snobbishly dismissed the genre as cartoonish, over-the-top drivel geared toward 14-year-old boys who drink Red Bull by the gallon and kick the shit out of each other in their back yards after a marathon viewing session of these low-budget Japanese imports. Not that there’s something wrong with 14-year-old boys drinking hyper-caffeinated beverages and blowing off a little steam; I just didn’t know these films could be so much damn fun. After seeing Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, no longer will I hurry past their section at the video store, resisting the lure of their busy, brightly colored covers. Director/writer/actor Takeshi Kitano has converted me. His film, another in a long line of Blind Swordsman productions, has given me something else to waste my time with: How much film noir can one man take, anyway?
I suppose what was most satisfying about this cinematic epiphany is how closely this film (and I imagine many other Japanese entries) resembles the Westerns of American cinema. The drifting loner showing up in a town where he’s used and abused and exploited by evil forces; the violent showdowns on dusty Main streets; the drunken confrontations in the local saloon; the blaring, Stomp-like musical number that tops off two hours of blood-splattering mayhem … well, maybe they do deserve their own placard at the video store.
This entry, in what has been a decades-long saga, begins with our blind masseur/samurai (Kitano) sitting quietly along a dirt road, where he is challenged by a gang of thugs who stupidly steal his cane, which is hiding a rather sharp implement. Although blind, he dispatches these thugs with a few swipes of finely honed metal before you can say “Man With No Name.”
Real blood is replaced with digital effects to great effect, lending a kind of unrealism and comic book innocence to the nonstop carnage. After finishing off these clueless morons, he ventures upon a town ripped apart by competing gangsters, vengeance killings, and a village idiot who runs around with his ass hanging out, spearing nonexistent enemies. Joining in all the fun is a transvestite geisha and her sister, searching for the gangsters who massacred their family, and an assassin-for-hire who slices and dices so his wife can get medical treatment she sorely needs. All these characters, including the compulsive gambler that Zatoichi befriends, come together to rid the village of the criminals who appear to have them in an inescapable death-grip. Watching them wriggle out of it is exhilarating, cathartic and downright bloody fun.
For those who can watch High Plains Drifter a thousand times and never get sick of it, the same unadulterated joy awaits you in this film, with the added bonus of one of the most bizarre, ludicrous, yet strangely satisfying endings of any film to date. Treat yourself to the charming, torso-slicing brilliance of my newfound friend, Zatoichi, and forget how sad it is that Clint Eastwood doesn’t make these things anymore.
In Japanese with English subtitles. Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main, Royal Oak. Call 248-263-2111.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].