There is a tap-dancing scene in the samurai film, “Zatoichi”.
For fans of the genre, using the words “samurai” and “tap-dancing” in the same sentence should capture both the eye and the quintessential weirdness that can be Japanese cinema for US audiences. But if tap-dancing is not enough to register a raised eyebrow, then perhaps the cross-dressing geisha, not to mention the theme of transvestism in feudal Japan, will do the trick.
Let’s back up here. Introduced in the early 1960’s, Zatoichi (pronounced “zah-toe-EACH-ee”) is now an archetypal character in Japanese film, inspiring over 30 movies and counting, as well as numerous television shows. Ichi (at times with the titular prefix, “Zato”, as one would say “Mr. Ichi”) is a blind masseuse ambling from town to town until some injustice or threat cause him to reveal his incomparable swordplay and samurai-styled sense of honor. Typically positioned in feudal Japan, the movies pit Ichi against gangsters, bandits, ronin (samurai with no master), and others who would do village people harm. The first movies turned star, Shintaro Katsu, into one of the most famous actors in Japan, and the director, Kenji Misumi (who went on to direct the famous “Lone Wolf and Cub” movies in the 1970’s), into an icon.
This time around, Ichi (Takeshi Kitano) wanders into a town under the sway of rival gangsters, just as a talented, young ronin and two justice-seeking geishas tip the balance of one gang’s power and paranoia. The result is bloody, with skirmish after skirmish leading to the final fights, when the formerly ambivalent Ichi is drawn into the fray.
Takeshi Kitano, both as director and actor in the character of Ichi, seems to be blending more modern influences with the older themes. While revenge is the common driver of most movies in this style, it is rare that a director will dwell on the psychological impact of the violence that inspires the revenge. In this case, a young boy is driven to prostitute himself (implicit, off-screen) to provide for himself and his sister when their parents are killed by gangsters. The movie’s pervasive blood gushing is done with computer animation, which lends a strangely toned hue to the many fight scenes. Kitano, like über-modern director Lars van Trier, has Ichi hearing the music of the sounds around him, in a similarly somber manner to Bjork’s character in “Dancer in the Dark” (2000, mature themes). Finally, Ichi sports blond hair and blue eyes in what could be an odd homage to Rutger Hauer –a favored actor in Japan—who played a Zatoichi-inspired character in the mediocre “Blind Fury” (1990).
It is said that Kitano, famed for his violent, modern films including Fireworks took on this project, his first period piece, reluctantly at the bequest and financial backing of an old friend of Shintaro Katsu. However Kitano came to film Zatoichi, fans of the samurai swordplay genre will welcome his style although it is far from traditional.
Parents should be aware that many people die in this movie and never by natural causes. Characters are harassed, beaten, and killed, which in turn motivates more deaths. Children are orphaned by thieves, leaving them to fend for themselves through servitude and then prostitution. Addiction to gambling threatens the livelihood of one character, while the lives of all characters are threatened by the gangsters that rule the town. One character commits suicide to prevent a loved one from having to act dishonorably. A male character prefers to dress as a woman.
Families may wish to discuss the appeal of a character like Ichi, whose inability to see makes him a symbol of justice and of power cloaked in a façade of powerlessness. What might explain the enduring popularity of this character?
Profit, power and revenge are the motivating factors for the deaths in this movie. How are the ronin and masseuse different from the gangsters?
Families who enjoy this movie might be interested in the original Zatoichi movies of the 1960’s, starring Shintaro Katsu, including Zatoichi Challenged, which also includes a musical number. For those who are adverse to subtitles, Blind Fury was a very derivative, American adaptation featuring Rutger Hauer. More recently, memorable samurai-styled swordplay in American cinema can be found in Volumes 1 and 2 of Kill Bill as well as in Blade, both with very mature themes.
The theme of overcoming physical challenges to become a famous warrior has been the source of a number of Asian fight movies, including ‘kung-fu’ flicks like Crippled Avengers/Mortal Combat (1978) and Master of the Flying Guillotine (1975).