Zatoichi - Takashi Kitano - Japan 2003
Takashi’s film starts where it should have finished with Takashi remembering that what film does best is movement: shifting consciousness across many levels of perception through movement.
Zatoichi closes with an unabashed rhythmic celebration of the film itself. A hip hop Hollywood dance routine that’s full of life and movement as the caste insinuate themselves into the choreography and we see everyone, the good the bad and the ugly, let rip in the music. In comparison the rest of the film is static. As actor/director Zatoichi is Takashi’s homage to Kabuki - Japanese popular theatre in which stock characters wearing heavy make-up and mask mix theatrical overstatement with rude farce and melodrama. Kabuki tells traditional stories told in a specific theatrical tradition and mode - different to but not dissimilar from pantomime. Film homage always risks dieing on its feet. Something to do with film and formal respect being a potentially ponderous combination. And in Zatoichi the Kabuki theatric form isn’t really shifted or structurally unravelled. There is immobility at the centre of the movie. The framing of the action, the shot-reaction shot sequences, the tracks and cranes are all heavy handed. The camera is not looking for anything. Its dead. the boundaries and interstitial zones marking potential areas of development and concern are unexplored. Except.
Except for some brief almost glossed over sequences in Zatoichi where the camera looks at peasants as they work the fields and then prepare for what looks like some sort of fertility festival(large life sized corn dollies in evidence). In these truncated moments we glimpse the possibility of a film energised by rhythms and tempos of the earth. But these trail off to become no more than cinematic gesture.
In Zatoichi what we have is a deadened outer theatrical form which gives us the retinal layered theatric experience of watching: actors playing yakuza gangsters in kimonos and dressing gowns(fancy dress) - some of them engagingly bald - hacking each other to death at regular interludes to gratify the needs of a revenge driven back story. It’s regurgitated reimported spaghetti Western with a catch all fake set which in long shot (except for the bridge which is quintessentially Japanese) suggests the plywood back lots of Hollywood Western.
If it wasn’t for the detail that this was Takashi’s film I would let it pass as not my kind of movie. But coming out of a director who has demonstrated flare sensibility and insight into the potential of filmic forms, Zatoichi needed further thought.
Even on its own terms the oppositions that it set in place are not interesting in themselves. The blind man who ‘sees’ everything is not interesting as it deprives him of his nature de-natures him. And the boy who chooses to be a geisha and the old gang boss who poses as a pot boy(usual suspect) are simply formal requisites of the narrative, purely mechanical theatric devices and treated as such.
Although Takashi as the blind warrior masseur has a winsome charm of a smile and the camera likes him and his haircut(well so it should) the character is caught in a major dilemma. Unlike - Clint Eastwood films for instance - Zatoichi can’t do eyes, because the character is blind. As the film fails to locate any affective replacement for the eye, the film’s protagonist mechanically dissolves as the film progresses - interest in him dissipates. And the idea of playing the blind man by having his eyes closed doesn’t work: the theatrical ‘play’ inherent in this idea allows does not compensate for its lack of filmic conceit.
Coming out of the film left me with the thought that Takashi needs to improve his massage technique. The massage he gives to the woman in the film was as unconvincing as his ability to massage the life out of costumes.
Zatoichi will probably make the money but leaves me wondering if this was the driving reason behind the film. adrin neatrour - 21 March 2004.