Beyond the Multiplex

A great Japanese sword fable that does everything Tarantino tried to do in "Kill Bill." Plus: The summer's runaway indie hit, and Damon joins the Zinn crowd.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published August 3, 2004 9:52PM (EDT)

"Zatoichi": Tap-dancin', bloodlettin' fun for the whole family!
It had to happen eventually: a month when the major indie film release isn't a three-hour documentary proving that John Ashcroft is actually the well-preserved, 106-year-old Heinrich Himmler (although that may be true) or explaining how the Bush administration's failure to sign the Kyoto accord has doomed the Tanzanian basketweaving ant to extinction and hence, by a complex chain of circumstances, condemned the entire planet. (That's probably true, too.)

No, in the spirit of the gloriously cynical JibJab "This Land" video, which -- sorry, die-hard Dems -- has no point of view beyond a cheerful pessimism about the whole process, it's time to cast aside partisan politics, kick up our heels, and enjoy a tap-dancin', blood-spurtin', populist samurai musical.

OK, I exaggerate slightly, but not that much. Takeshi Kitano's " Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi" isn't technically a musical, even if it does include several oddly delightful percussive interludes and ends with a rompin', stompin' taiko-drumming-meets-Harlem-tap number that rocks about twice as hard as anything in "Chicago." What it is, though, is an unclassifiable every-genre-at-once movie, in the spirit of the great martial-arts classics. Some of its violence is comic and cartoony, some of it is dire and horrifying. It's a mystery, a swashbuckler, a fable of bloody revenge, a tender tale of youth corrupted, and a tragedy about a noble samurai who takes the wrong path for the right reasons.

While the ultraviolence and the slapdash Mixmaster sensibility of "Zatoichi" surely aren't for everyone, it's such a big, compassionate film, so full of life and so delighted with its own excesses, that it's likely to win over all kinds of viewers (as it already has at numerous film festivals). As one Internet posting put it, "Zatoichi's" improbable combination of elements is pretty much what Quentin Tarantino tried to pull off, with somewhat less success, in "Kill Bill." If there's any justice in the world (I know, there isn't), this release will introduce to a wide audience both the legendary Japanese blind swordsman and Takeshi Kitano himself, one of the most peculiar and original forces in world cinema.

We don't have the time or space here to explore either of those topics adequately, although one could start by saying that Zatoichi, the hero of numerous Japanese novels and films, is something like Robin Hood mixed with Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name. An apparently harmless blind masseur, wandering the countryside alone with his cane, turns out to be a samurai swordsman of the highest order, a nearly silent defender of widows and orphans who stands ready to slice 'n' dice all warlords, thugs and other abusers.

Kitano is harder to summarize. An auteur's auteur who writes, directs, edits and generally stars (as Beat or "Bito" Takeshi) in his own movies, he's part art-film obscurantist and part pop-genre stylist. If his best films -- and while I'm not the world expert here, I'd nominate "Sonatine" and "Hana-bi" (aka "Fireworks") -- sometimes suggest the operatic actionfests of John Woo, they more often suggest the low-key, everyday dramas of Yasujiro Ozu, or even Ozu's No. 1 American son, Jim Jarmusch. They can be visually daring and even "difficult," but at the same time beneath the wicked jokes and the gamesmanship there's almost always a surprisingly big-hearted sentimentality. To be honest, I've always viewed Kitano's movies as an odd, acquired taste and felt I hadn't quite acquired it. But "Zatoichi" is such enormous fun, I'm making a vow to go back and watch them all again (or in some cases, like "Brother" or "Violent Cop," catch them for the first time).

Kitano plays Zatoichi as a white-haired, almost decrepit beggar in late middle age, who seems to creep from town to town, content to lodge here and there with lonely widows, fond of the occasional cup of sake or an evening in the gambling parlor. (His especially acute hearing makes him deadly at games of dice -- he can tell an odd from an even throw by sound.) Regretfully but ruthlessly, he has to haul out the hidden sword from his cane every so often, frightening brigands so badly that one of them, in an early scene, slices his comrade's arm open by accident.

Genre fans will be delighted with the swordplay in this movie, but not because it's all that heart-stoppingly athletic, in the Jet Li or Jackie Chan mode. (Although he's an agile performer, Kitano is now 57.) Instead, they'll love it for its herky-jerky, overly choreographed, half-comic manner and its implausible fountains of blood. Kitano deliberately adopts the style and look of the martial-arts films of the 1960s and '70s, and somehow makes the appropriation seem charming rather than obnoxious (as it might in the work of a compulsive film-quoter like Tarantino).

I think the secret is that, for Kitano, the action sequences are the spice and not the stew itself. He's genuinely more interested in the gentle comedy of Zatoichi's flirtatious relationship with the widow Oume (Michiyo Ookusu), or his efforts to rescue Oume and her hapless, gambling-addicted nephew Shinkichi (Gadarukanaru Taka) from the evil gang controlling their village.

Kitano is such a dense plotter, and such an imaginative tale spinner, that "Zatoichi" would be a memorable film even without all the chopping. There's a heartbreaking subplot about two young geisha who may not be exactly what they seem and who have a very good reason to avenge themselves on the town's gang leaders. There's another about the young samurai Gennosuke (Tadanobu Asano) who goes into the service of evil Boss Ogi (Saburo Ishikura) in an effort to save his sick wife -- a decision that inevitably means Gennosuke must face Zatoichi in a fight to the death. I'll probably see movies this year that are more classically well-made, and more coherent, than "Zatoichi," but I don't know if I'll enjoy any of them as much. Besides, will they have traditional Japanese tap dancing?

More from Japan: The creepy, baffling "Gozu" -- for art geeks only!
If Kitano is something of a godfather to the upstart group of youngish filmmakers who've been called the Japanese New Wave, the frighteningly prolific Takashi Miike (who has made something like 50 films in the last decade) is one of its key figures. For all his quirks, Kitano is clearly devoted to entertaining audiences, whereas Miike seems to be following his own profoundly eccentric pole star. He's barely known in North America -- a few of you might have seen his profoundly disturbing lonely-bachelor-seeks-wife horror flick, "Audition"-- and his new "Gozu" isn't going to change that. If you're the right kind of masochist, though, and you live in New York (where it's now playing) or another major city, this might be exactly the disorienting, hypnotic experience you're looking for.

Nominally, "Gozu" (written by Sakichi Sato, who also scripted Miike's "Ichi the Killer") is the story of a young Japanese gangster named Minami (Hideki Sone) who accidentally kills his friend Ozaki (Sho Aikawa) and then loses his body while en route to the "Yakuza dump" in the unfamiliar city of Nagoya. But even that sentence conveys more sense of a conventional plot than actually exists. From its very first scene, "Gozu" is more a voyage into a disordered psychological state -- a Freudian sexual fever dream or a paranoid fantasy world -- than a story of comprehensible events occurring in a recognizable space-time continuum.

Minami's boss has ordered him to kill Ozaki because Ozaki appears to have gone bananas -- he attacks a harmless Chihuahua on the street, accusing it of being a "yakuza attack dog," and tries to kill a random motorist for similar reasons. But whatever Ozaki got is catching; Minami's sojourn in Nagoya becomes less and less about his efforts to find the missing corpse, and more about the increasingly sinister character of the city and its inhabitants.

Everyone, it seems, wants to get up close and personal with Minami; his horny landlady begs him to drink her breast milk, and a fellow gangster named Nose (who wears white Kabuki makeup on half his face) wants to sleep over. He resists these advances and doggedly follows some nonsensical clues, but the atmosphere of dread only thickens. Let's just say that if you make it all the way through "Gozu" to the creature who finally forces its erotic attentions upon Minami -- and to the subsequent final reappearance of Ozaki -- you won't soon forget it.

I almost never read reviews of movies I'm going to write about myself, but "Gozu" was such a mystifying voyage I couldn't help checking to see if anyone else had made more sense of it than I did. A.O. Scott of the New York Times has compared it to David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," which may help a little -- I mean, at least you know it's weird, right? But as even he admits, "Mulholland Drive" possesses at least a referential relationship to the real world, whereas "Gozu," at least to viewers outside Japan, is likely to seem a completely baffling amalgam of gangster, horror and late-'70s-style creepazoid erotica. In the press notes, Miike explains that the theme song, which he wrote, is "a song of sorrow about a dairy cow who happened to be born a male." That explains more about him and his movie than any commentary I could provide.

Quick Takes: "Howard Zinn" and "Maria Full of Grace"

If you haven't yet overdosed on political documentaries offering evidence about the overall direction of America (that is, to hell, in handbasket), you won't want to miss Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller's engaging study of the star lefty historian, "Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train." (It's currently playing in New York and Los Angeles and is likely to reach a college campus somewhere near you later this fall.) Despite its narration by Matt Damon (who hereby outs himself as a Hollywood left-winger), this film is an ultra-low-budget labor of love, a long way from the pyrotechnics of "Fahrenheit 9/11" or the sophisticated collage techniques of "The Corporation." But Zinn makes an unassuming, engaging and inspiring subject -- if you only know him as the author of the revolutionary "People's History of the United States," you may not know his long history as a committed activist.

Zinn taught at Atlanta's Spelman College at the dawn of the civil rights movement and converted that staid black college into a hotbed of activism -- and got fired for his trouble. During the Vietnam War, he traveled to Hanoi with a delegation of American antiwar activists to secure the release of three U.S. POWs -- and as one of his colleagues reveals, when asked to sing a song at a ceremonial banquet, crooned "America the Beautiful." That anecdote illustrates Zinn's character wonderfully. While he occupies a role on the academic left not far away from fellow campus cult hero Noam Chomsky, Zinn is a perennial optimist where Chomsky is a doomsayer. An Air Force veteran (who, as he discusses, dropped napalm on German civilians in World War II), Zinn loves his country so much he must reproach it for its crimes -- knowing all the while that one day it will do better.

Finally, the unexpected indie hit of the summer looks to be Joshua Marston's "Maria Full of Grace," a by-the-numbers saga of a teenage girl from Colombia drawn into the international drug trade. It's a modestly interesting little work of social realism, but pretty much everything in it has been done better elsewhere. There is one reason to recommend it, and that's the luminous performance of Catalina Sandino Moreno in the title role. Beautiful, vulnerable and angry by turns, her Maria is a consummately believable teenage hothead, eager to defy the taunting of her older sister -- and able to lie fearlessly to U.S. Customs officials.

There are few surprises in Maria's ordeal, but it's wrenching all the same. She quits her dead-end job in a small-town flower-processing plant (she'll later see some of those flowers on the street in New York) and is lured by a handsome city kid into working as a "mule" -- swallowing 62 rubber-packed pellets full of heroin and flying into Newark Airport with a tourist visa and a tissue-thin cover story. Marston's attention to the gritty details of the smuggling trade and the few, grim options open to poor Latin Americans is admirable, but it's Sandino Moreno who makes this TV-movie material watchable to the end. You can't take your eyes off Maria, and you'll forgive her whatever she does. Aspiring art-film directors (and maybe Takashi Miike) should watch and learn: If the audience loves your leading character, you can get away with anything.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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Beyond The Multiplex