review by Seraph
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For most people, the character of Zatoichi will need no introduction. Beginning in the early-1960's, Japan created the thoroughly enjoyable legend that is Zatoichi: the blind swordsman. Zatoichi (played by Shintaro Katsu) was the focus of a 26 film series and roughly 100 TV episodes. In those films he wanders from town to town as a masseuse. (He's blind of course) Trouble is, Zatoichi can't help but manage to get involved in a range of situations that lead him to expose his incredible swordplay skills. This leads to a notorious reputation and trouble around every corner. Shame, considering all he want's to do is lead a peaceful life. Well, it doesn't look like he'll find peace any time soon, as actor/writer/director Takeshi Kitano drags Zatoichi kicking and screaming into a new age of film making with style to spare and considerable success.
Kitano stars as the eponymous Zatoichi who this time round sports a head of peroxide blonde hair just to show you this isn't your parents Zatoichi. Right from the get-go it is clear that this is going to be something a little different. Something new. This isn't to say that Zatoichi is devoid of the style, period and mood of the originals, it does in fact have an authentic feel of the traditional Chambara pictures. It's just the way Kitano uses new film-making techniques and ambitious artistic style to tell the story that really gives Zatoichi a feel of it's own.
The movie begins with a rugged looking Zatoichi sat on a dusty roadside. A group of men from the nearby town make a bad choice when they decide to have a young boy steal the old mans cane. If only they knew that the old guy had lightning fast reflexes and that his cane is actually a disguised sword they might not have bothered. They shouldn't have either because it takes Zatoichi like, 7.2 seconds to be the only man left standing. The style of this scene gives you a taste of what's to come regarding action. It's fast, bloody and very brutal with (CGI) blood spraying in all directions. Then our hero sets off slowly towards the small town in the distance and Kitano's genius hits. The score. Instead of having a theme here, the music is dictated and indeed created by what is happening on screen. Farmers work in the nearby fields with pitch forks and each and every lunge they make creates the beat. I wish I could describe this better but I can't. It's one of those scenes that you need to see yourself and it had my jaw on the floor. From here in, Zatoichi takes up temporary residence with a woman (Michiyo Ookusu), meets two sisters, O-Sei (Daigoro Tachibana) and O-Kinu (Yuuko Daike) with a deadly hidden agenda and crosses paths with expert swordsman and masterless Samurai/Ronin Hattori Genosuke (played by the truly excellent Tadanobu Asano) who is trying to care for his severely ill wife. Somehow, all these events and characters are connected and the way everything plays out is fascinating. Each and every character gets their own little side story and in the case of Tadanobu Asano's Ronin Hattori, even more screen time than Zatoichi himself. This was a wise move by Kitano as it gives more depth and emotion to this particular story and also makes the scenes where Zatoichi does appear and/or kick some serious ass in, all the more exciting.
Another element seamlessly woven into the story is comedy. Some truly excellent comic timing by Kitano and the group of wonderful actors he has employed really helps to lighten what is otherwise a fairly dark story of revenge. The guy who wants to be a Samurai and runs around the outside of Aunt O-Ume screaming is truly hilarious as is the scene where the group tries to disguise Zatoichi by painting eyes onto his eyelids. I think I nearly cracked a rib there.
The action is spread sparingly over the entire running time of the film with the last third maybe getting a little more focus. As I said before the action is fast, furious, efficient and very bloody. The blood effects, in this case, being generated on a computer have met with trepidation and even disdain by some viewers. I however, found it quite intriguing and felt the CGI effects gave the film a unique, artistic feeling of heightened reality. After all, if you can accept an expert blind swordsman then some over the top blood effects shouldn't be a bother.
Kitano's direction is exemplary and never in doubt. The amount of images in this film that leave a lasting impression are many and the acting by the ensemble cast is absolutely top notch. At times though, the way in which Kitano directs can make some of the less energetic scenes drag a little for people who aren't interested in the artistic element and cinematography but there is still enough for those viewers to enjoy too.
All in all, from the low key (but excellently set up) opening all the way through the comedy and intertwining plot threads to the incredibly choreographed (The Stripes) final tap dance (Yes there's even dancing in this melting pot) I was absolutely riveted and if you have a heartbeat, you will be too. This is truly remarkable film making.
I rate it 9/10
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Product Title : Taegukgi
Artist Name(s) : |Shintaro Katsu
Language : Japanese
Duration : 120 minutes
Reviewed by Paul (Seraph) - November 2004