Tuesday, September 07, 2004

The Return of Zatoichi


No Louies today. It’s Zatoichi time.

I can’t pretend to know anything about Japanese cinema. Or any other kind of cinema, for that matter. But I know what I like, and I like samurai movies. Twenty-some years ago there were a lot of like-minded samurai fans here in Portland, and one of the neighborhood theaters catered to us with frequent double features and occasional festivals. My favorite film of the time was Yojimbo, and my favorite actor Toshiro Mifune.

There seemed to me a three-tiered hierarchy of samurai movies. At the top were the A-film blockbusters, like Seven Samurai and Ran. Slightly less prestigious, but still with good acting and high production values , were films like The Hidden Fortress, Rashomon and Yojimbo. And then there were the cheapie action flicks, the B-Westerns of the samurai genre, like the Zatoichi series.

The Zatoichi movies (and there were a lot of them) were a perfect mix of violence and humor. Zatoichi, a hunched-over, little blind masseur with the face of a toad, would shuffle into town in his funny hat, where some gang of toughs were sure to try and rob him. Off with the hat, out with the sword, and half a dozen toughs would be lying dead in the street. Survivors, if any, ran off squealing, “Oh, no! Zatoichi!” Fond memories.

So when I saw that a new Zatoichi had hit town, it got my blood pumping. And yesterday I finally saw it. Old Zato’s new incarnation, I’m pleased to say, nicely lives up to the original. Once again, he has no agenda of his own. He just wanders into town looking for food, shelter, sake and the nearest gambling establishment, and gets caught up in somebody else’s troubles.

The new film is bloodier, probably due to our increased insensitivity to it, and more noticeable because everything is now in color. (For some reason, I have a hard time getting used to color samurai. In my imagination, they’re still black & white.) I wasn’t counting, but thinking back, I’d guestimate the body count at somewhere around fifty, more than half sliced up by Zato himself. But to offset the blood, there’s also more humor. Add a few quirky characters, a few plot twists and a couple of surprises at the finish, and you get an enjoyable two hours of chuckles and bloodletting.

The only slow part was a stretch in middle involving the two geishas whose troubles drive the plot. And the only annoying scene was a long geisha dance accompanied by one of those funky little Japanese banjos played one screeching note at a time. That scene could have used a little Louie.

Metacritic gave the film a 71 (
http://www.metacritic.com/film/titles/zatoichi/). I might rate it a little lower for the general public, but for armchair ronin like me, it’s required viewing.

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