Little talk, lots of blood, a last dance

`Blind Swordsman' cuts to the chase


September 10, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Zatoichi is an aging, oddly blond Japanese masseuse who likes to gamble and wields a sword like there's no tomorrow ... which there isn't, for any who annoy him. Fortunately, he's also laid-back.

That may not sound like much to hang a movie franchise on, but trust me, it works. Or if not me, trust the millions of Japanese moviegoers, who since the early '60s, have made the 20-odd Zatoichi films the Eastern answer to James Bond.

Released last year in Japan, The Blind Swordsman marks a turning point for the franchise: Gone is Shintaro Katsu, the actor whose last performance as Zatoichi was in 1989. In his stead, comes Takeshi Kitano, a former stand-up comic who has become one of Japan's most popular actor-directors, due in large part to his films centering on the ya- kuza, or Japanese mafia. (One of his earlier films, Brother, had a brief engagement at the Charles in 2001.) In this film, Kitano is writer, director and star.

Blind Swordsman should do nothing to diminish the popularity of either Kitano or the franchise. It's a top-notch action film, albeit on the bloody side, complete with decisive action, mysterious characters and a nobility and sense of purpose that allows its excesses to be forgiven.

As Zatoichi, Kitano (who uses the screen name Beat Takeshi), wanders through 19th-century Japan, a seemingly doddering, blind man, barely noticeable save for an astonishing skill at games of chance. But in the course of this film, he will help a bumbling villager gain respect and a few thousand yen; give a fallen samurai a final chance at honor; liberate a village from a ruthless gang of yakuza; and help two geishas avenge their parents' deaths.

Kitano's Zatoichi is notable for hardly saying anything (he's obviously studied his Clint Eastwood westerns), and for making short work of his enemies. The battles here, in fact, may disappoint samurai fans who prefer hearing the ring of blade on blade in long, drawn-out fight scenes. In this movie, no fight lasts more than two or three swings.

What Blind Swordsman lacks in sustained battles, it makes up for in sheer numbers (somebody's on the wrong end of a sword every few minutes) and in the purity of its vision; both Zatoichi and the fallen samurai adhere to a strict code of honor that sustains them regardless of foe. That, combined with the brevity of the fights, makes it impossible to dismiss the movie as just another slicer-and-dicer.

But in case the movie hasn't grabbed you by the time the story's over, Kitano grafts on a dance sequence at the end that brings back all the cast members, plus a few dozen extras, in a Japanese version of Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk. The scene has nothing to do with the actual film, everything to do with the sort of joyous movie magic guaranteed to resonate long after the screen is dark.

A Clint Eastwood western, with an epilogue by Savion Glover ... now that's a juxtaposition that gives cultural cross-pollination a good name.

Blind Swordsman

Starring Takeshi Kitano

Directed by Takeshi Kitano

Rated R (strong stylized bloody violence)

Released by Miramax Films

Time 116 minutes

SUN SCORE * * * 1/2

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