The Unexplainable Mark of a Master: A Review of Zatoichi (2003)

In Movies by Fox WilliamLeave a Comment

Despite being released nearly two decades ago, Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi— a character who had previously inhabited 26 films and 100 TV episodes—  still manages to feel fresh in 2021.

For fans of Kitano, however, this should come as no surprise— given the comedian-turn-director’s reputation for bringing an ounce of nuance into every production.

The Blind Swordsman

To me, the draw that keeps me dipping into Kitano’s filmography is his unique playfulness with film form. Be it the tight, rhythmic edits or his inclusion of other art forms, the formal factors of his films tend to drive my enjoyment, taking precedence over their narratives. In this regard, Zatoichi is no exception.

Donning bleach-blonde hair, Kitano’s Zatoichi (the character) appears, for western audiences, as a classical western hero with a new coat of paint. He is a blind swordsman who comes to the defence of townsfolk in Edo period Japan. Upon his arrival, the townsfolk’s wallets are being choked by local yakuza’s excessive demand for protection money amid a gang war. 

To keep this as swift and dirty as the swipes of his blade: Zatoichi waltzes into the midst of this war, bearing a suspicious cane housing a sword, and resolves all the troubles barely breaking a sweat.

Of course, there is more to the plot which interweaves a handful of characters and events; a parallel tale of a dishonoured swordsman becoming the bodyguard of one yakuza boss, as well as a tale of two geisha out for revenge. Underneath which are some eminently interesting, and problematic, ideological discussions to be had; from the film’s representation of rural life, the inclusion of the spear-wielding “idiot” and the blaring fact that this, among most of Kitano’s other films, would miserably fail the Bechdel test.

Yet this all falls to the wayside when considering my experience of the film as a whole—as Kitano’s penchant for unique flair shines through.

Katanas, Comedy and a Chorus

Kitano’s formal nuance begins early on. In what appears to be an innocent, almost expendable scene, Zatoichi is seen simply walking towards the town. Nevertheless, Kitano manages to make a memorable scene of this moment. A group of farmers working the soil in the foreground attack the soil with their tools—creating a barrage of light thuds. These thuds quickly align to form a rhythm; one which extends the sequence and turns a throwaway travel shot into an unforgettable, almost slapstick, moment.

These farmers return later in the film; this time working in mud and, inevitably, one of them ends up face-down in it. But this recurrence signals that there’s more than meets the eye here. These innocent characters are playing a role somewhat akin to an operatic chorus.

The most overt formal challenge comes in the film’s very final moment, and is likely to leave many audience members dumbfounded if they’re not already expecting it. (Oddly, the finale features heavily in all publicity for the film—from trailers to behind-the-scenes snippets—so it is fair to say that many, if not most, viewers will anticipate it.)

I’m of course referring to a tap-dancing musical finale which seems absurd within the film’s otherwise diegetic world. All the film’s characters dance together on stage punctuating the climax, either with a full stop or, for many viewers including myself, a question mark.

While this reminds me of similar diegesis-breaking endings, such as within Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, Kitano’s version is not an easy cue to reflect on what we have just watched. Instead, this stylistic flourish appears as just that— an excess of style and no more. This, along with similar moments found throughout Kitano’s filmography, has been stuck in my brain ever since.

The reason why still eludes me. The moment doesn’t prod any clear ideological discussion, nor does it enact any kind of narrative revelation. Instead, it simply seems surreal or, dare I say, downright weird. But regardless of what we label it, its effect is strong.

After some digging, perhaps this confusion makes some sense. Kitano has said in interviews when discussing this very film that “People ask me to explain the themes of my films in words. But if this were possible, the film itself would be redundant. You understand the themes by watching the film.”This may either resonate profoundly or reek of the glaringly obvious to some. Personally, I find it perfectly pinpoints the confused fascination I always experience within Kitano’s films. And while it’s clear that neither I nor Kitano himself may be able to put our fingers on it— through all the katana swipes, blood splatters and moments of absurdity— it is this perhaps this ineffable secret spice which makes Kitano’s Zatoichi feel fresh almost two decades on.

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