d. Takeshi Kitano / Japan / 2003 / 116 mins
Viewed at: A3.03 @ UEA (Norwich, UK)
Since Zatôichi was released in 2003, there has been a considerable amount of discussion about whether the film represents an occidentalist (or auto-orientalist) view of Japan from the perspective of a director who had, in recent years at least, looked toward the international art cinema market for recognition and, importantly, financial backing.
Undoubtedly, Zatôichi might be read as Kitano displaying Japan (and Japaneseness) in a manner to which the outside world has become accustomed. As a Japanese man himself, however – and one who exists both within, and apart from, Japanese popular culture – he is also blurring the boundaries of genre and character in much the same way he had in his earlier films.
Wrapping his hyper-Japan in typically odd packages, Kitano immerses his audiences (Western and otherwise) in a veritable Bento box of Japanese iconography, from samurai to geisha, sake to taiko. (All that’s missing is haiku, origami and the occasional Hokusai painting.)
And yet Kitano’s repertoire runs much deeper than the superficial placement of easily recognisable signifiers, as he stuffs his ode to the blind swordsman with parodic references to the jidaigeki and, more specifically the chambara of which the Zatôichi cycle (1962-89) is a chief proponent. Parody extends from a group of kids ‘attacking’ a straw man, to the villiage idiot, living out his own ronin fantasy whilst running around like a lunatic. Most notably, this wry treatment of a canonical Japanese genre exists in one character’s attempt to ‘train’ a trio of young men who refuse to follow the ‘rules’ of chambara cinema by attacking him all at the same time, instead of taking their carefully choreographed turns and allowing him to fend them off with ease like a ‘real’ swordsman.
Similarly, Kitano takes parodic aim at the very notion of a blind swordsman – and the attendant questions about just how ‘blind’ he might actually be – a notion reflected in the laughable disguises taken up by the wandering cast of characters: Ichi himself poses as a masseur (also a feature of the original series), while another male character quite literally inhabits a geisha disguise.
Most acute though is Kitano’s idiosyncratic inclusion of a series of dance sequences – often in a concrète style that borrows heavily from Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000) – and their culmination in a Bollywood-esque final sequence which further blurs the identity of Zatôichi and adds fuel to a fire which seeks to burn Kitano’s Japanese credentials and claim (or discredit) him, once and for all, as an internationalist filmmaker.
As if to prove this point (somehow), I’ve foregone the usual ‘authentic’ trailer experience for this giant pile of Miramaxed hyperbole:
And just because they’re so wonderful, here’s one of the dance sequences: