by HELEN GEIB
In 2003, writer-director-star Takeshi Kitano revived the Zatoichi character in his brilliant Zatoichi. Zatochi is technically a remake of The Tale of Zatoichi (last week’s DVD of the Week), but the new film so profoundly re-works and augments the old that I’ve never wanted to try measuring the quality of the one against the other.
Zatoichi is “a Zatoichi film” that offers all of the familiar pleasures of series and genre, and is at the same time an art film that transforms its source in startling and exciting ways. It is homage and reinvention.
Blind Ichi is at the center of a cast of characters who are all, to greater or lesser degree, people without a place in society: feuding yakuza gangs and their hired thugs; a hapless small time gambler; a ronin swordsman; itinerant sibling entertainers. Even the local woman who offers Ichi a place to stay is on the social margins. She has a house and the era’s equivalent of a truck farm, but she is middle-aged, single, childless, and evidently without any relatives she can rely on for support. (There’s a nephew, but he’s the good for nothing- if good natured- small time gambler.) And she’s the only productive member of society in the main cast!
The film gives special attention to the ronin and the siblings, including flashbacks to their lives as itinerants (in the siblings’ case, since childhood) and to the events at the root of their social exile. They are products of a society that is victimized by the strong and cruel to the weak. Expelled from normal society by violence, they live as outcasts by becoming criminals.
The ronin, his wife who followed him into exile, and the siblings are all facets of the ronin antagonist from The Tale of Zatoichi. The Tale’s ronin worked for the yakuza as a hired sword, but was nevertheless a tragic figure. He was marked by suffering, physically from tuberculosis and emotionally from the futility of adhering to a code of conduct that is despised by the hypocrites in charge.
The physical infirmity and resigned acceptance of hopelessness is displaced to the ronin’s wife in Zatoichi. Her husband claims to take any employment that comes, no matter how “dishonorable,” to earn money for his wife’s treatment, and that he aspires to have an official position again, but those are empty protestations. He is driven by blood lust and an ego that demands proof of his superiority with the sword.
The emotional connection between the Ichi and ronin of the Tale is impossible between the Ichi and ronin of Zatoichi. The void is filled by the siblings, characters original to Zatoichi. They are deeply sympathetic figures with a heartrending story to tell and a righteous quest for vengeance to fulfill. Ichi is just the man for the job.
New releases this week: Alvin and the Chipmunks, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street