Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 26, 2004 5:19 pm 
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Transcending the franchise in the Kitano way

The Blind Swordsman: Zatôichi, Takeshi `Beat' Kitano's late entry into the franchise of the blind masseur with heroic killer instincts and a weakness for protecting the poor from criminal bullies, is also late coming to the US. The delayed Miramax release of this already widely seen movie may be explained by America's relative unfamiliarity with the series and with the world film market; or Miramax's imperial tendency to shelve and release their purchases as they please.

Except for the original rather New Age music, Zatôichi for the most part eschews some of the more personal aspects of Kitano's cinematic style and lacks some of his other films' charm and silliness. Nonetheless the mere fact that it is he who embodies the main character is a kind of mockery of the tradition, and he does seek to transcend it with ironic plot references to Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. As Zatôichi, Kitano has close-cropped bleached hair suggesting a punk East-West fusion, and -- as in his gangster movies -- he dispatches victims with a total deadpan rapidity that, when his quirkiness and his wit are in the air, can be both hilarious and awesome. Here, it's mostly just tidy. The many, many killings and maimings are quick, bloody, but not gross; always a matter of slight of hand, of astonishing dexterity. This may be irreverent, but it's not Monty Python. The costumes and sets are not slapdash.

Also subversively, Kitano's Zatôichi hints toward the end that he may actually not be blind, but in a playful final twist his last words are: `Even with my eyes wide open, I don't see anything!' This is nothing but a good-natured mockery of the whole Zatôichi idea, a nudge to show us how preposterous the masseur's exploits are. The concluding, post-story sequence is a rollicking Kabuki tap-stomp dance number of the whole cast ensemble (minus Kitano) that must have Tarantino green with envy. It's great fun and so weird that it takes a minute before you even realize it's happening.

If you're an average American moviegoer this Zatôichi is likely to be somewhat incomprehensible to you. Kitano's structure in all his movies tends to be arbitrary and sometimes confusing. This one isn't complicated really, but he slides into it in such crab-wise fashion that it's overblown before you've taken it in. The effort to give the narrative an ingenious twist isn't altogether successful -- or entertaining. You will, however, admire the film's classic Japanese samurai period-costumer look.

And, whether you like them or not, you can't miss the Nobuto siblings. They're a girl and boy whom the director focuses on almost obsessively. Orphaned and traumatized by an early massacre in which a crime gang kills all the rest of their family, they roam the earth pretending to be a couple of geishas in order to rob people, watching and waiting for their eventual revenge against the gang that has wronged all their relatives. Cutting back and forth endlessly at one point between the Nobutos playing and dancing, the cross dressing boy dancing and the older sister playing, both as children and ten years later, the sequence of cross cutting is interminable and inexplicable. You also notice the recurrent scenes in the little bar with `granny' and `pops,' as the subtitles call them, who turn out to be something quite else. This is where the story's secrets are all hidden.

As in his other movies, Kitano is playing around with his story in a momentarily arbitrary and personal way. There's always something liberating about his nuttiness, even here, though Zatôichi is rather heavy fare compared to Ha-na-bi or Sonatine.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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