Running Time: 116 mins.
In the 19th Century an old, blind man wanders the mountains of rural Japan. He makes his living as a masseur and at the gambling table. He is, in fact, an old Samurai master swordsman.
When he happens on a remote mountain village he finds the place in the grip of the tyrannical rule of a local crime boss, Ginzo, who extorts money from the locals and punishes anyone who cannot or will not pay. When Zatoichi meets two geishas at the local brothel, he starts to understand how cruel Ginzo's rule has been. He decides to exact revenge. In the final showdown he must confront Ginzo's new bodyguard, a young Samurai warrior.
Takeshi Kitano is one of Japan's most celebrated directors. Last year this film garnered for him, and his team, Japanese Academy Awards for best cinematography, best editing, best lighting, best score, best sound, as well as best director at the 2003 Venice film Festival. We can see why.
This film is directed in an explicitly theatrical style, like a filmic opera. It is technically complex, and, dare I say, well executed. It is also extremely bloodthirsty.
Apart from the high level violence, which is unhelpfully set amidst self-deprecating humour and sight gags, the non-linear storytelling and slow pace in the middle section of the film suggests that Zatoichi is not for everyone.
Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the director of the Australian Catholic Film Office.