Takeshi Kitano may be the most recognizable person in Japan, but almost nobody in the United States has ever laid eyes on him. A pop Renaissance man, Kitano is a ubiquitous television presence, has written more than 50 well-regarded books of fiction and criticism, and is a sports columnist and commentator, not to mention a poet and a painter. Tough, darkly funny, yet strangely likable, he's the love child of Clint Eastwood and Simon Cowell – with a little Bob Costas (as if there were any other kind) and Buster Keaton thrown in.
In his spare time, what there is of it, Kitano may make the best movies that almost no one goes to see. His first nine pictures even tanked in his native Japan, where viewers could see him for free every night of the week on television. All that changed with his crowd-pleasing new film, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi. Top-prize winner at the Venice Film Festival and snatched up for distribution in North America by Miramax (which gave it the present clunky title), it was Kitano's first box-office success in his home country. In the West, it has the potential to be the first Takeshi Kitano movie that expands his audience beyond an ecstatic cult.
Zatoichi is an unconventional – some would say ironic – updating of a classic black-and-white samurai serial starring Shintaro Katsu and dating back to 1962. Now Kitano plays the title role, that of a blind swordsman and masseur who travels the countryside in search of employment rubbing backs – or lopping off limbs. Armed with dry humor and blond surfer hair, he's more dangerous than he seems. In the classic serial tradition, the film opens with a band of ruffians learning a hard lesson about trying to take advantage of Zatoichi's disability. He takes up with a widow, helps her layabout nephew win at dice, and, as with the Toshiro Mifune character in Yojimbo (the source of Eastwood's Man With No Name from A Fistful of Dollars), finds himself playing both sides of a violent gang war. Soon he's mixed up with a vengeful brother and sister, both masquerading as geishas, and an icy ronin, Hattori (played by the great Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano), who hires himself out to pay for his ailing wife's medical expenses. Hattori becomes Zatoichi's nemesis, and the two inevitably, reluctantly, clash in a bloody duel on a deserted street in a kind of haiku High Noon.
Casting himself as the blind swordsman is a natural for Kitano, whose near-fatal 1995 motorcycle crash left most of the muscles in his face paralyzed. He has described his six-month convalescence as a time when he was forced to flex new, and subtler, artistic muscles; in 1998, he told an interviewer that he dreamed of making a movie about a blind person where his protagonist's point of view would be a black screen. Zatoichi isn't nearly that radical, but it has moments with the same unsettling force, like a showdown in a cramped gambling parlor when Zatoichi hears that the dice are loaded, then metes out justice like a house-bound tornado. Indeed, all of Kitano's best films are carefully controlled explosions. The exteriors are placid, almost apologetic, but the undertow is violent and frightening. His movies have a claustrophobic fury about them – watching them is like being caged with a wild animal.
Kitano's movies are also exceedingly vicious (they carry titles like Violent Cop and Boiling Point), and Zatoichi is no exception. Limbs fly in stylized arcs, bad guys writhe in pools of their own blood. Yet unlike the Tarantino of Kill Bill, Kitano generally doesn't pull us into the action – he prefers keeping us at arm's length. He puts his camera in one place and lets his actors move in and out of frame, a technique that has drawn him comparisons to the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. This stationary camera creates the sense that everything is at a dispassionate remove, like events unfolding in some theater of the absurd, or in pictures at an exhibition. Violence in a Kitano movie is always highly aestheticized: It can take the shape of a gunfight inside a car or an elevator, or in extreme long shots where the muzzle flashes of machine guns in a pitch-black warehouse resemble a storm massing over the horizon. Every duel becomes an intimate waltz.
Zatoichi is also funny. Kitano first found fame as a standup comedian – one half of a team called "The Two Beats" – and he still revels in the opportunity to play the straight man. Ever since his accident, a spasmodic facial twitch has become Kitano's trademark – he uses it like a combination of Eastwood's squint and Keaton's implacable deadpan. There's a wonderful scene in Brother, shot in L.A., where Kitano stabs a mugger in the eye with a broken bottle and, delightfully, his expression never changes. I guess it can't. His Zatoichi has the same impish playfulness, especially in his tender, mischievous flirtation with the widow. He enjoys giving back rubs just a little too much.
Beyond his sly sense of comedy, Kitano has found another way to temper the graphic violence. He has always been the bridge between the formalist tradition of Japanese cinema (Ozu and Mizoguchi) and the postmodern ethic found in two cult-hero countrymen: the morosely nihilistic Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, Pulse) and the exuberantly nihilistic Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer). But with Zatoichi, Kitano adds something new, drawing a pure line from the choreographed, ritualistic Asian martial-arts genre to the similarly choreographed and ritualistic golden-age Hollywood musical, beginning with a field of laborers pounding earth in time to Keiichi Suzuki's rollicking electronic score and leading to a blending of the delirious music-hall pizzazz of Yankee Doodle Dandy with 19th-century Kabuki theater. The hybrid is remarkable, as if Gene Kelly didn't twirl around that lamppost in Singin' in the Rain but went after it with a sword.
Throughout the movie, Zatoichi's blindness makes his world a welter of impressions, and by transporting us inside the swordsman's head, Kitano creates a landscape full of rhythmic possibility. Zatoichi lives in a world of sound, and his ear seeks to craft sense and structure from all the confusion. His climactic, rain-drenched battle with Hattori is so poetic because of the care that Kitano takes in marrying the pounding of the rain to the trip-hammer beat of the duelists' hearts. In Zatoichi, the anticipation of sudden violence goes beyond mere tension, rising to something like contemplation. To Zatoichi, the sudden, percussive deluge of a fallen enemy's blood has the restorative power of rainfall. In a lesser director, such excess would become self-parody; in Kitano's hands, excess becomes a sublime statement of Zen. The showers of blood are like a baptism, a confirmation that no matter how grisly the actions in which he engages, Zatoichi's life is measured out in moments of wondrous and mysterious experience. Zatoichi is less about killing than it is about the long, quiet moments before it begins and the stunned calm that follows. One gets the sense that the only real crime is to offend Zatoichi's gourmet ear.
As with Eastwood or Keaton, the center of a Kitano film is inevitably its iconic star. He's more animated here than in the others in which he's directed himself – freeing up the jester while reining in the ogre. And he's beautifully counterbalanced by Asano, who, like Johnny Depp, works against his matinee-idol good looks. Asano's face is a quicksilver canvas and, without even speaking, can radiate at one moment a venomous seething, and in the next a resigned melancholy. His performance provides a sober anchor to Kitano's barely restrained jubilation. He's the yin burdened by the weight of responsibility to Zatoichi's carefree yang.
Although Zatoichi may disappoint some Kitano purists, who might think it a vanity piece or submission to popular taste – he's even begun moving his camera – its pyrotechnics are still audacious and breathtaking. The film may not be his best, but it's a worthy companion to Kill Bill and should draw attention to such earlier masterpieces as his sprung-gangster film Sonatine (1993) and the heartbreaking Fireworks (1997), the story of a brutal policeman and his dying wife that is, to my mind, the greatest film of the 1990s. Like Kitano himself, Zatoichi is a marriage of seemingly contradictory elements that somehow make a compelling whole – a little Ozu, a little Kurosawa and a whole lot of rock & roll.