Takeshi Kitano directing a new version of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman, how does it sound? Well, a little off.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
When the film was released in the West in 2003-2004, the name “Zatoichi” was unknown to most people. Of course, some fans or old timers knew the original film series starring Shintaro Katsu – 26 films produced between 1962-1989, including a TV series during the 1970s. Some episodes were available on bootlegs, few of them had actually been officially released at some point.
Zatoichi really gained recognition thanks to Kitano’s film, which was a commercial success around the world. It made $32,285,593 worldwide, it’s really one of the few recent Japanese (non-Ghibli) films to do so well at the international box-office. As a result, western distributors decided to release the original film series on DVD, allowing people to discover the adventures of the blind swordsman!
Originally, Zatoichi was played by actor Shintaro Katsu, who had such an amazing screen presence, charisma – you can easily guess how hard it has been to find another actor for this role. The guy was literally Zatoichi.
This character is some sort of a tragic figure, stuck in a dilemma. A man who wants to love and be loved, but due to his handicap, he’s forced to rely on violence to survive. Ultimately, he’s always seen as a killer, and has to move on. Pretty sad.
Another example. During his adventures, Zatoichi often meets an equal – a samurai. They share similar ideas, but they are enemies and will have to fight against each other. It’s just another tragic dilemma for Zatoichi: meeting someone who can understand him, who can respect him, but who is payed to kill him too.
IT LOOKS LIKE ZATOICHI, BUT IT’S NOT.
In his version, Takeshi Kitano borrows some of the basic elements of this series; the samurai/equal hired by bad guys, with Zatoichi who somehow finds himself involved in this situation, and help the oppressed poor people.
The biggest change is the character development. Or, the lack of character development. The film is called Zatoichi, yet, the masseur appears as a silent and cold killer who does nothing most of the film. He’s not emotionally involved in the story, he’s the spectator of his own adventure. No dilemma in sight, and no real confrontation with the samurai.
One could have thought Kitano was going to explore the title character’s melancholy. Not at all, it’s perfectly flat, as there’s no purpose here. The masseur swings his sword around, makes some jokes, and that’s it.
Quite a way to crush the myth, to ignore what is interesting about it. It’s like Kitano directed an anti-Zatoichi film, going so far as to humiliate him, “Even with my eyes wide open I can’t see a thing!”