Zatôichi [Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman] (2003)

(On DVD, October 2010) Even though it’s hard to mistake a film in which dozens of people get killed by a katana-wielding swordsman as anything but an action movie, Zatoichi is so off-beat in its approach to the genre that it escapes clear-cut designation.  This difference starts with the lead character, a blind masseur who is quickly revealed to be a supernaturally gifted swordsman, with other senses giving him all the edge he needs against his enemies.  Though the film does itself no favours with a deliberately slow first act, it eventually moves on to present an alliance between the blind swordsman and two orphans trying to find their parent’s killers.  The historical recreation of rural Japan is convincing, but it’s the film’s constantly unconventional nature that provides much of the entertainment in-between CGI-enhanced bloody deaths.  I’ve been meaning to see anything by writer/director Kitano “Beat” Takeshi for a while now, and this film is as good an introduction as I needed.  Eschewing traditional action movie pacing and tone, Zatoichi often whimsically stops its plot for a contemplative moment or two, going back and forth between high art and low comedy (and even lower violence) as it chooses.  Even fans of more traditional Asian action cinema will be caught off-guard by the film’s refusal to play by the usual genre conventions.  Still, there is a lot to like here, in-between striking images, a compelling title character and the charming out-of-nowhere final dance number that wraps up the film more effectively than any triumphant finale.

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