Zato Ichi (2003)
[from Chapter Four: The Alien Hero]
While Shintaro Katsu’s embodiment of Zato Ichi ends on a note of mock alienation in his final feature in 1989, a new Zato Ichi feature was completed in 2003 directed by and starring Takeshi “Beat” Kitano. The Ichi of Kitano, who previously directed his own portrayals of modern yakuza and rogue cops in such films as Violent Cop (1989), Sonatine (1993), Fireworks (1997), and Brother (2000), is older, blonder, but certainly as bloody as Katsu’s. Kitano’s measured performance takes Zato Ichi irrevocably into middle-age, which Katsu never confronted, although he was a year older in 1989 than Kitano was in 2003. Much has been made of the “dead-pan” Kitano has brought to roles since a near fatal motorcycle accident in 1994 left his face partially paralyzed. Ichi’s blindness makes this “mask” into something else: a subtly appropriate lack of expression from a character who has never seen it on the faces of others.
Kitano opens with his Zato Ichi alone at the edge of the roadway. A lone man peeks over an incline, goes back, reappears with seven equally scruffy companions. A boy with a stick approaches. “Bring us the cane,” one of the men says while proffering a coin. The boy actually gets the deadly shikomi-zue away from Ichi, but the head man refuses to pay as promised. Instead he yells a challenge: “Ichi!”; and all of them approach the lone blind man. They mock him, and, of course, he exploits their inattention to retrieve his sword and bring them all down.
As in the prologue of Zato Ichi and a Chest of Gold, Kitano invokes the legend with an immediacy as graphic as the main title: it splashes across the screen in red like a spray of blood. Kitano then establishes that there is more than one killer on the road. In a montage of shots at a crossroads, a masterless samurai is walking with wife and his thoughs are revealed in a flashback to a killing. Two geishas rest by the roadside rest and another flashback reveals them murdering a clerk. With a rhythmic visual style, Kitano sets not one but three stories in motion: Ichi, the ronin, and the geishas, whose fates genre expectation suggests will soon intertwine.
In the town which Ichi soon reaches, the “Ginzo gang makes life hell.” Kitano creates a counterpoint with an almost surreal scene of farm hands tilling the soil while keeping time to music like a line of drummers. Ichi takes shelter with Oume, a farmwoman whose nephew Shinichi is a gambling addict. Gennosuke, the ronin tells his wife, who is ill, that, while he may be offered a clan post again someday, in this town he must seek work as a yojimbo. Another flashback reveals how he lost his retainship: he was beaten in a combat with a brash, bokken-wielding ronin. He is soon hired by one of the rival local gambling factions. Two final flashbacks complete the personal histories: Ichi recalls a fight in some rainswept sand dunes where he kills another eight men. The geishas flashback to the death of their entire family at the hands of masked thieves.
Having set up the three back stories, Kitano throws the characters together. Shinichi takes his aunt’s house guest to a local gambling house, and, as with Katsu’s final incarnation, Kitano’s Ichi has an uncanny ability to sense whether the dice are odd or even. After a night of winning, Zato Ichi and Shinichi meet the geishas. Before they can attack, Zato Ichi’s keen sense of smell tells him that one “geisha” is actually a man. Disarmed at being unmasked, the geishas confess that they are the only survivors of the Naruto family and living by their wits as they search for the killers who orphaned them. Shortly thereafter, Ichi encounters Gennosuke at a local inn. Although Ichi quickly demonstates that he is faster on the draw, Gennosuke still presumes that he can vanquish the blind man.
Of course, he cannot. Kitano adheres to the genre expectations regarding Ichi’s prowess and adds a dimension of parody similar to many of the Katsu series. At one point, Shinichi paints eyes of Ichi’s lids which anticipates the sustained final sequence in which Ichi pretends to be sighted. While the farmers dance in the rain, Ichi overcomes Gennosuke and all the other minions of the local gambling chiefs. Kitano’s stylized ending visually recalls the ironic aftermath of Gosha’s Goyokin with an elaborate festival of masked dancers and drummers. With anachronistic choreography, all the principals join the chorus line of dancers on a stage in front of a lantern-lit pagoda. Through a computer-graphic effect, as they dance the Narutos momentarily become children again.
Kitano’s feature makes Zato Ichi is a 21st-century enigma. In some ways, he is a Zen-like figure, at peace with his existence, less tortured than Katsu sometimes was over his murderous past. His fights are focused, measured, never as frenzied as Katsu’s often were. Despite his introduction of musical and visual anomalies, as with Katsu’s incarnation, Kitano makes this ritual of combat an almost automatic behavior, as stylized as a ballet. In ending with the farm festival, Kitano reasserts this. But unlike the Narutos, Ichi can never recapture his lost innocence.