The words "deadly" "blind" "masseur" may not appear to go well together, especially when combined with "swordfighting," but from the 1960's through the 1980's the object of that descriptor ruled Japan's cinemas. As portrayed by actor Shintaro Katsu in 26 films, Zatoichi was a blind masseur whose walking cane concealed a deadly sword and whose loner mystique masked his sympathy for the oppressed. The iconic character re-emerges in this entertaining and idiosyncratic 2004 interpretation, complete with a platinum blonde haircut, a transgendered prostitute friend, and a tap-dancing performance art troupe. Now played by director "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, Zatoichi wanders into a town ruled by power-hungry overlords. Taking refuge with a kindly peasant woman and her slackjawed nephew, he attracts the attention of two deadly geishas, who are looking for the people who slaughtered their family, and a silent samurai, who's taken up with the gang leaders to earn money for his dying wife. Outcasts all, their lives are fated to intersect in a flurry of flashing steel and enough spurting blood to turn Tarantino green with envy. "With Zatoichi, what you see is what you get," writes Kitano of this old-fashioned crowd-pleaser, but the film is far more than spinning swords and geysers of gushing plasma. Featuring costumes by famed designer Yohji Yamada, choreography by the performance troupe The Stripes, and Kitano's usual warped approach to comedy, Zatoichi takes us beyond the sword-opera genre into the realm of pure visual spectacle.
Takeshi Kitano was born in Tokyo, in 1947, and entered show business in 1972 using the stage name Beat Takeshi. As part of the comic duo Two Beats, Kitano was one of the leading figures in the manzai (Japanese stand-up comedy) boom of the late 1970s. He first won international attention as an actor for his role in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and has gone on to appear in more than 70 films, including Johnny Mnemonic and Battle Royale. Kitano is also an acclaimed director of films as diverse as yakuza gangster tales (Violent Cop, Sonatine, Brother), slice-of-life comedy (Kikujiro), and drama (Kids Return, Dolls). His film Hana-bi (Fireworks), won the Golden Lion at the 1997 Venice Film Festival and was named Best Non-European Film by the European Film Academy. Kitano is also an accomplished cartoonist and painter -- as seen in Hana-bi and Kikujiro -- and has written a number of novels and collections of short stories, essays, and poetry.