Samurai Schizophrenia 

Zatôichi: The Best Five Movies of the Year

Zatôichi
Dir. Kitano
Opens Fri, Aug 13
Fox Tower

Let's get this out of the way: Zatôichi (Takeshi Kitano) is pretty much the coolest guy ever. Shuffling from town to town, the blind masseur walks the Japanese countryside with only his trusty cane--or so it would appear. Turns out that the shambling Zatôichi is really a samurai, his cane hides his sword, and it doesn't matter that he's blind, as his vicious, brutal swordplay can take out ten 20/20- blessed thugs with a few thunderous swipes.

While Zatôichi is a badass, his movie (also directed by Kitano) isn't quite as cool. An awkward combination of Kurosawa's ponderous Japanese samurai epics and the desperate schizophrenia of an early Jackie Chan flick, Zatôichi attempts too much: It's at once a moving, thoughtful drama, a kickass action movie, and a borderline slapstick comedy... with a few dance routines thrown in.

It's not that this makes for a bad film, per se, just an exceedingly uneven one. When the pacing isn't speeding by in jerks or (more often) dragging for long stretches, Zatôichi meets up with a woman (Michiyo Ookusu), her nephew (Gadarukanaru Taka), and two geishas (Daigorô Tachibana and Yuuko Daike), one of whom happens to be in drag. Throw in Hattori (Tadanobu Asano), a Ronin serving a crime boss, and you've got an off-kilter film that's undeniably entertaining.

Entertaining in spurts, anyway. While Kitano's often hilarious swordfights are nothing short of breathtaking--swift and stylish, with spinning blades, severed limbs, and geysers of blood--they're at odds with the portrait of the villagers' lives Kitano seems equally interested in painting. And the shoehorning in of musical numbers (Zatôichi might be the only samurai film to end with a massive tap-dancing sequence) doesn't help things out, either. While each of Kitano's distinct styles are done well--the action's exhilarating, the comedy's funny, the drama touching, and even the music sequences are enjoyable--Zatôichi never meshes as a whole. And while it's to Kitano's credit that the seemingly incongruous threads connect surprisingly well by the end credits, that doesn't make sitting through it the first time any easier.

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