A suite for hoes and percutionists was how Roger Ebert summed up this film: I find myself agreeing. The comment sums up one of the most impressive scenes within Zatoichi, four men are tending a field, the repeated strike of their hoes on the ground turns musical and gives a scene its beat. The film itself like the scene is everlastingly visually inventive in its presentation of traditional material. Afterall the plot is that of a great number of action movies: an out of town fighter arrives in town and saves the oppressed people from the gangland bosses who abuse them. Only in Zatoichi, the fighter is not Clint Eastwood but a masseur with a sword cane, the locals are a motley assortment- a mad young man charging round the house with a spear, an older woman, two geishas (one of whom is a transvestite) and an inveterate and fairly harmless gangster. As to Zatoichi, more even than the man with no name, he doesn't really have much of an identity. He shuffles, laughs, giggles, and walks unsteadily through the film: but you don't get any idea of his inner life or why he does what he does. His rescue of the town is not the rescue of a town by a man but rescue courtesy of a natural force.
Zatoichi is an old Japanese story, redone in comics and films. I'm afraid I don't know the source material at all. However it seems to me from seeing this film that the director wants you to know that this is a traditional story. What he has done is rendered it differently. One temptation might have been to render it absurd- to do what the Three Amigos did for the Western and poke fun at the Japanese Samurai form. Or you could update the theme in the way that Casino Royale did the Bond films- turn a gentle myth into a modern drama of character development. But that isn't what the director has sought to do here at all. He has assumed we know the old myths and sought to create a new one. In parts it is absurd, in parts the plot clanks around, but the sounds, the style are so individualistic that it is evident the director wants you not merely to enjoy but to wonder at what he has done. You should come out of the movie thinking, not about the plot or the storyline, but about the buzz of the visuals, the sound of the movie, the symphony he creates out of rain splashing on puddles and the colour contrast of CGI blood against grey stones.
Here I admit to a failure of the imagination- because I am not this film's target audience. I do not find those things astonishing. I can imagine though how you could. What the director does with the plot is skew it as he skews the visuals. This is a familiar and yet unfamiliar world. When did you last see a Japanese samurai movie tackle the subject of paedophilia- perhaps the subject is not taken seriously enough but its there. There are plenty of powerful women in the film as well- Zatoichi stays with an older woman who is simply formidable. Of the two geishas, it is the girl not the boy who is more intelligent and less attractive: she leads whereas he is the bait for older men to be interested (a useful reversal of conventional gender roles). She can see the tragedy, he cannot. You could go through the film picking out these opposites. This is a samurai hero who allies with the bourgeoise against the old feudal ethic. Perhaps most emblematic of this is that Zatoichi fights with a body guard whose reason for serving come down to a chivalric desire to protect his girlfriend. The girl suffers from asthma and asks the samurai not to fight for her, he does and the inevitable happens.
I run now before my horse to market though for Zatoichi is not primarily about the story or the message or rather its message is not earnest and dull. This is a joyous film which is attempting to redefine the place of cinema. We often watch brooding and dark films with important points: Zatoichi is about recreating a cinema which is very different, the cinema of post war MGM- the dream factory. Its about giving you dreams. Even I, who don't have a visual imagination, am startled a couple of nights after I watched it by the number of times that its images come up in my dreams. Wonder is part of human life and needs cultivating: Zatoichi with its invention and its quirky sense of humour is attempting to give us wonders in the same way that Loki did before. Like Loki, the director is a trickster, he turns situations upside down and inside out, like Loki he embarrasses the conventional and creates things which could not be.
Like the Norse God he is absolutely brilliant at it and his film is very beautiful, in its own heavily idiosyncratic way.