Akira Kurosawa's visions of feudal Japan were some of the first to show western audiences Japan's history through their eyes. Kurosawa was an amazing director and each frame housed so much passion. His brilliant films like Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai not only had strength of cinematography but of swordsmanship, humor, and detailed characters. It is no wonder that these films have inspired upcoming directors for decades.
One of those influenced directors has to be fellow Japanese director Takeshi Kitano, and in his latest film Zatoichi, there is a lot of Kurosawa.
In Japan there have been more than 20 films made about Zatoichi, who is a blind, gambling masseur who also happens to be an elite swordsman who can rival the very best samurai. He is a hero in a world gone mad as he tries to help the innocent and weak.
In the Kitano version, Zatoichi comes upon a village swarming with ruthless gangs, corrupt samurai, and a mysterious leader. He also comes upon two geishas who are trying to avenge the slaughter of their parents almost ten years previous. It all comes down to a series of showdowns as Zatoichi makes friends, even more enemies, and helps the townspeople and the avenging geishas.
I can't say that I am an aficionado of samurai films, but as a film, Zatoichi is wonderfully directed, full of razor sharp wit and swordplay, and has some really impressive performances. I really enjoyed that Kitano was not only the director but the star of the film. That stunt casting adds more passion and depth to the project. It helps foreign audiences relate to this legendary Japanese hero.
The style, screenplay, and depth of passion for the character should make the film appeal to more than just samurai fans. The screenplay itself has so many twists and turns that it is sometimes hard to uncover how many layers the film has. I really loved how Kitano uses slight of hand or distraction to bring the audience away from where his film is going. It can be a little confusing, but adds to the surprise of the outcome. It is an amazing style.
I hope that Kitano's Zatoichi paves the way for more samurai films to be released theatrically in North America, kind of like the way Miyazaki's Spirited Away has paved the way for a more mainstream approach to Japanese animation. (4 out of 5) So Says the Soothsayer.