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He's Old, Poor and Deadly

The blind swordsman of Zatoichi puts Hollywood's steroidal stars to shame.

By Dorothy Woodend 18 Jun 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend has been the film critic for The Tyee since 2004. Her work has been published in magazines, newspapers and books across Canada and the US, as well as a number of international publications.

Dorothy worked with the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Whistler Film Festival and the National Film Board of Canada. She is a member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Alliance for Arts and Culture in Vancouver. Dorothy is also the Director of Programming for DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.

Reporting Beat: Film.

Dorothy's Connection to BC: Born in Vancouver and raised in the wilds of the Kootenay, Dorothy's favourite spot is her family's farm on Kootenay Lake.

Twitter: @dorothywoodend

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The Japanese have suffered a lot in film lately. Sophia Coppola's Lost in Translation won an Oscar for making them look like nitwits; Tom Cruise gave his hair a starring role in The Last Samurai; and Quentin Tarantino had his blond Uma über goddess mow them down by the dozens in Kill Bill.

Hollywood is happy enough to steal from Japanese filmmakers, and the success of Hideo Nakata's Ringu paved the way for a plethora of remakes including Ju-on, Dark Water, and Ring II, stripping all that is culturally specific out of those films and replacing it with Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Even on the small screen, Japan is everybody's favorite to rip off. Iron Chef as an American remake with Mario Batali and Bobby Flay (much less William Shatner), simply isn't the same thing. The Hollywood penchant for absorbing things from other specific times and places and dubbing in stupid American voices over the Japanese originals is taking cultural appropriation to strange new places. If I was Japanese, I'd be thinking "f-you whitey."

Don't mess with the masseur

But Japan appears to be fighting back. If you're looking for a real hero you could really do no better than Takeshi Kitano's blind masseur, Zatoichi. With his cane, his downcast eyes, and bandy legged gait, he is the antithesis of Hollywood muscle-bound steroid cases. He's old and he's poor but he can kill you six different ways before you hit the ground.

The film begins with Zatoichi sitting by the side of the road not doing much of anything; he could be napping or just daydreaming. Some local thugs bribe a little kid to steal his cane and then all hell breaks loose. Blood spurts and limbs fly. Wielding his blade like a master painter, Zatoichi's palette holds only one colour, and that is crimson. Arthouse angles are interspersed with all-out gore, and it is this combination of elements that makes for the most surprising moments in the film. In one beautifully simple sequence, Zatoichi makes his slowly shuffling way into town while in the field a group of peasants bang out a percussive ditty with their hoes.

The village is run by Ginzo (Ittoku Kishibe) and his gang of thugs, under the control of the mysterious Kuchinawa boss. The cast of characters includes a noble(ish) Ronin Hattori (Tadanobe Asano) who takes a job with the local crime boss to pay for his sick wife's recovery, as well as two mysterious Geisha, Osei and Okinu, their parents murdered by the very same gang that now rules the village that Zatoichi wanders into. All of these characters come together in a panoply of loss and lust, crime and revenge, blood and dancing. What? Yes, dancing, lots of dancing. The Japanese dance troupe The Stripes forms a sort of percussive Greek chorus to the action. Composer Keiichi Suzuki's film score adds an entire other dimension to the action. From peasants splashing in the mud, to the thump of hammer and axe, to the sound of rain falling, the sound design is almost an entire film in itself.

Return of the Samurai

Like Westerns, Samurai films come and go in terms of their popularity, but the genre keeps returning in different guises, retelling the same stories. Zatoichi recalls western films like Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven in which a deadly killer lays hidden beneath an unremarkable surface. It also recalls, oddly enough, the Spencer Tracy classic, Bad Day at Black Rock. Like Takeshi Kitano's blind swordsman, Tracy is also disabled (missing an arm) and he arrives in an isolated village, under the sway of corruption on high. He too is a reluctant hero.

But unlike American films, in which the grimness is unrelenting, Kitano's film is bursting with life. It's laugh out loud funny in places, and strangely beautiful in its depictions of violent death. When Zatoichi faces a bunch of bandits in the pouring rain, he is preternaturally still, waiting for the exactly right moment to strike -- an economy of movement that somehow thrills. This thoroughly choreographed dance of death, in which blood arcs into the air like red ink in a Japanese calligraphy, is so lovely, you almost forget about the dead bodies piling up.

But audiences expecting Tarantino-esque pyrotechnics may be sadly disappointed. There are long sequences in which nothing much happens except traditional Japanese dancing. Yet when the film ramps up, with the underlying percussive score beginning to race like a thumping heartbeat, it explodes in an all-out orgiastic bloodletting intercut with a joyous dance sequence. Oddly enough, the dancing is one of the most exciting things in the entire film. To the pounding roar of the Taiko drums, the entire village assembles and dances their brains out. And it's wonderful.

Hollywood can't do humble

Takeshi Kitano is an odd duck. Although he's been lionized on the world film festival circuit, many people may recognize him from MXC (Most Extreme Elimination Challenge) airing on Spike TV in the U.S. Even in Japan, he's known more as a comedian than as an auteur. Nick Coldicott, editor of Eat Magazine in Japan says "Takeshi is known over here more for being a comedian (or more specifically a "funny TV presenter") than a director, but he's extremely popular among Japanese people - and all his movies are pretty well received over here."

Zatoichi had its international premiere at the 60th Venice Film Festival in 2003, where Kitano was awarded the Silver Lion award for best director. The film also captured the People's Choice audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Whatever he is, he is an original and the scenes in Zatoichi in which Kitano simply sits and stares at nothing are equally compelling as those in which he slices and dices up the bad guys. There is beauty in mystery and in humbleness. Which is something that Hollywood cinema never seems to understand.

Having seen a number of films in which quotation, references, homage, whatever you want to call it, are used relentlessly, I have started to get very tired of it. Recently I watched Shrek 2 and as I walked out of the theatre, I thought there wasn't a single original idea in the entire movie. Almost every scene, every joke, was borrowed from somewhere else. As long as the borrowing is out in the open, all is apparently well, which is what Shrek is doing, winking broadly while it endlessly recycles.

The annals of Hollywood aping and destroying foreign films is nothing new, but sometimes this constant quotation undercuts the very thing that makes films so enjoyable in the first place. It takes you right out of the film entirely. In an era of films made by committee, test audiences and remake after remake, anything truly unique is too easily lost and increasingly, authenticity is hard to come by. The need to see something undigested, unprocessed, quite simply, something you've never seen before, becomes critical. And say what you will about the Japanese, they push the cultural boundaries quite unlike anyone else in fashion, film, food, you name it.

In Zatoichi, Takeshi Kitano is cool in a way that Tom Cruise can never hope to be.

Vancouver-based Dorothy Woodend writes for many international publications and reviews films for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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