- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

The notion of a blind, blond masseur standing between innocents and dueling mobs hardly seems a fair match.

Then again, you haven’t met Zatoichi.

The tale of Zatoichi claims a long heritage in modern Japanese culture, stretching across more than 20 films and a regular television series. Actor Shintaro Katsu sliced and diced his way through the role until his death in 1997.

Now, popular Japanese director Takeshi Kitano takes a literal stab at the legend, maximizing the bloodshed as well as the gallows humor.

It helps that Mr. Kitano, who once performed as part of a comedy team dubbed the Two Beats, can morph from humorous codger to deadly assassin in a fistful of frames.

There’s more than a bit of silent-film mugging in his wily turn, and “Zatoichi” shines when that peeks through.

Mr. Kitano, who wrote, directed, edited and stars in this goulash of genres, is no Quentin Tarantino, although the two seem like kindred spirits. The former’s filmmaking style is more straightforward and less obsessed with pop culture, but the content ranges as far afield as a Tarantino epic.

The masseur in question seems content to wander from land to land in 19th-century Japan without ever unsheathing the sword hidden within his walking stick. Injustice and ignorance, alas, disturb his placid world. Among those destined to cross the masseur’s path are a samurai for hire (Tadanobu Asano), a village idiot played strictly for laughs and a local who’s a bit too curious about cross-dressing, geisha style.

It’s a rich irony that a film depicting men so assured with their swords would suffer from severe editing woes. A snip-snip here and there would remove most of the pretentiousness from Mr. Kitano’s otherwise buoyant film. He seems unable or unwilling to trim scenes that linger like a foul smell, although the slapstick interludes recall an Abbott and Costello type of glee and balance the bloodshed.

Although discipline is a core principle in 19th-century Japan, “Zatoichi” all but collapses at times for lack of it. Inconsequential flashbacks and unneeded comic vignettes further hobble the already clunky storytelling.

Mr. Kitano’s ability to cross genres and moods can prove electric. Anyone who dares wrap a swordplay epic with a tap-dance number redolent of “Stomp” deserves applause simply for the boldness of the move.

Had Mr. Kitano not fallen under the spell of the Japanese myths he revitalizes, his “Zatoichi” might have made a case for an American love affair with the character.

***

WHAT: “Zatoichi”

RATING: R (frequent violence and bloodletting)

CREDITS: Written, directed and edited by Takeshi Kitano. In Japanese with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes

WEB SITE: www.miramax.com/zatoichi

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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