Kitano 'Beat' Takashi is a phenomenon of contemporary Japanese film. A university drop-out who drifted into stand-up comedy and thence into making 'yakuza' films, he won the Golden Lion for Hana-bi at the Venice Film Festival in 1997. Films that he writes, directs, stars in and edits himself. He's also a writer, painter and talk show host.
Zatoichi won best director at the 2003 Venice Film Festival. Zatoichi is a blind itinerant masseur whose cane conceals a sword: he is also a master swordsman whose speed and intuition has no equal. Of course he fights evil: like a comic book hero he is ordinary, almost completely helpless, one moment, and invincible the next. The film is about corruption and retribution, corruption of civil society and of innocent children too. The retribution is sudden and thorough.
There is sudden violence, but in context it isn't excessive. It isn't the violence of an Arnie film (not that I've ever been able to watch more than a scene or two) or of a Clint Eastwood film, which can seem humourless and downright creepy by comparison. Zatoichi is humorous throughout: a humorous and human background to sudden and very brief action scenes.
The extraordinary fight in the rain, for instance, lasts hardly 90 seconds and consists of 20 or so shots, either of sudden movement or pauses as we watch simulations of injury. Takashi chose to film it in bright sunshine, the rain provided by hoses, hence the vivid 'rain' streaking down, as in 19th century samurai prints. Directed, acted and edited by Takashi. (The theatrical gushes of blood were pumped through pipes in the actors' costumes and digitally enhanced: I'm a great fan of the 'Extras' on DVDs.) The effect is stunning, underlined by slow sad music. & in every fight, despite the carnage, there is no 'blood' on Zatoichi's clothing afterwards. In real life he'd be drenched in it. Too much reality would distract rather than enhance the scene.
Timing is crucial throughout, impeccable cutting and inventive camerawork. Takashi's sense of humour is particularly evident in the ending, where a Shinto ritual segues effortlessly into a modern tap dance routine, with all the main characters and many, many more, continuing rhythms that have been building up throughout the film. It's ridiculously good entertainment, and thoughtful too. & of course it looks fabulous throughout. Thanks for the recommendation, MsH.