by Deborah Shamoon
It seems a shame then that probably most of his fans outside Japan don't realize that the latest offering in the Beat oeuvre is actually a remake of a very popular series of the same name from the 1960s about a blind swordsman. Still, ignorance of cultural context has if anything helped Beat's image abroad. After seeing him on Japanese television night after night in that bald cap with penciled-in nose hairs, I find myself unable to speak of him in the same tones of hushed admiration as those employed by my fellow grad students in the Film department at Berkeley. Perhaps in this case also, a context-free viewing experience might be more rewarding than the inevitable nit-picking that comes from knowing the original source of a remake. But the original Zatoichi is so well-known in Japan, and the remake refers to it in so many ways, it's hard to imagine the film making any sense outside Japan.
Many jidaigeki have of course been well-received abroad, and cross-cultural borrowing between Japan and Hollywood has informed both the jidaigeki and Western genres as far back as the 1950s. The Beat Takeshi version of Zatoichi is, like the original series, a set piece with a plot derived straight from the American Western. The first director do this was Kurosawa Akira in Seven Samurai (1954), who reinvigorated the fossilized jidaigeki formula by grafting a Western plot onto an Edo period setting. Previously, jidaigeki tended to recycle plots from kabuki, folk tales and classical literature, such as Chushingura and The Tale of the Heike. Instead, Kurosawa utilized the standard Western plot, in which the virtuous but poor farmers are oppressed by a band of outlaws, and turn to a wandering hero for help. The hero is at first reluctant but eventually intercedes and is successful not only because of his fighting skill, but because, like the outlaws, he too is not part of the farming society. In the end, after defeating the outlaws, he must either integrate into society by hanging up his guns and marrying the farmer's daughter, or he must ride off into the sunset. Kurosawa's addition to this formula was to have the main hero help the farmers by assembling a band of companions to fight the outlaws. Seven Samurai has spawned a host of imitators, from the remake Magnificent Seven to The Dirty Dozen. More generally, Kurosawa's jidaigeki have influenced American filmmakers including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese and George Lucas. In an article about Kurosawa in the Chicago Sun-Times Roger Ebert wrote, "[I]t could be argued that this greatest of filmmakers gave employment to action heroes for the next 50 years" (19 Aug. 2001: 1). In fact, it seems that foreign audiences have come to expect these kinds of plots from jidaigeki, not realizing that their roots are in Hollywood Westerns.
Beat Takeshi's contribution to the jidaigeki genre, however, is unlikely to be as influential or groundbreaking as Kurosawa's. For all that he attempts to be innovative, the end result is still uneven, and pales in comparison to the best films in the original Zatoichi series.
The first Zatoichi film appeared in 1962, starring Katsu Shintaro in the titular role, a character based on popular tales from the 1680s. His name is actually simply Ichi; zato is an official title for a blind masseur who is also at least nominally a Buddhist monk (hence the shaved head). The series does not linger over Zatoichi's origin, or explain in detail how he came by his extraordinary skill at sword fighting. It's just a given. The typical plot starts with Zatoichi arriving in some unknown town. Some foolish or arrogant person tries to trick him or take advantage of his blindness, and Zatoichi quickly fights him off. This is usually followed by a scene involving Zatoichi indulging in his favorite pastime, gambling on dice games. He feigns helplessness and confusion, loses the first few rounds on purpose, then cleans up in the end. Usually as the plot progresses, he befriends some child or old person in distress, and ends up unwillingly drawn into local gang rivalries, which inevitably end in an orgy of violence as Zatoichi single-handedly defeats the henchmen and hired thugs of the evil gang.
What elevates the Zatoichi series above the average jidaigeki, however, is the sensitivity and humanity Katsu Shintaro brings to the role. For all his skill, Katsu's Zatoichi remains fully human. Rather than the aloof ronin or opportunistic yojimbo, he plays the part as a good-natured bumbler who enjoys drinking and gambling, and is not above using his blindness to his own advantage. However, he is at least marginally a Buddhist monk, and he retains an acute sense of justice and morality. His fighting skills ensure that he will always be called on to kill again, and his inner conflict between his desire to see justice served and his desire to avoid bloodshed is what drives the plot. Usually his chief opponent is a virtuous ronin fallen on hard times who has hired himself out to the wrong side; their final fight is drenched in pathos as Zatoichi finds himself forced to kill a man he respects and in some cases has even befriended. Although there is always some truly evil character in the form of a ruthless gang boss, the climax of the plot is usually not the defeat of evil, but the confrontation between two men who are forced to fight merely by circumstance. Of course, since this is a series, Zatoichi always wins, but the endings can rarely be described as happy.
Given the popularity and predictability of the original series, Beat Takeshi had a big role to fill, and in many ways, he sticks to the original formula. The film opens with a scene in which the bad guys harass the silent Zatoichi, giving him ample opportunity to demonstrate his skill with the sword. Next, the other main characters are introduced as they appear in the town, and a clever series of quick cuts fills in their background stories. There are the two geisha, Okinu (Daike Yuko) and Osei (Tachibana Daigoro) who kill their customers in revenge for past wrongs, the requisite honorable ronin turned assassin, Hattori Gennosuke (Asano Tadanobu), who brings his consumptive wife along on the job, and the poor old woman farmer Oume (Ogusu Michiyo), harassed by the local gang. Of course it's clear where this is all heading, but Takeshi takes his time building up to the final confrontation between Zatoichi and the evil gang henchman and the melodramatic showdown with Hattori, by lingering in detail over the backgrounds of all the supporting characters. The two geisha's story is actually quite moving and well done, but the rest is utterly predictable and at over two hours, the film really drags. By contrast, most of the original films were a snappy 80 minutes, which is about as much as the thin plot can support. Oume' s nephew Shinkichi (Gatarukanaru Taka), a luckless gambler, provides some very plodding and unfunny comic relief.
The only character lacking back story or development is Zatoichi himself, which is a bit odd since Takeshi takes on that role himself. In fact, he is the most boring character in the film. He hardly talks, or shows any expression at all. Even during the gambling scenes, he doesn't engage in any of the usual banter or trickery, but just sits quietly winning round after round while Shinkichi disports himself idiotically beside him. Did Takeshi feel intimidated about taking on the mannerisms and quirks developed by Katsu Shintaro? Or was he just uninterested in the character? An article in Time Asia indicates that he wasn't really a fan of Katsu, but was bullied into doing the remake by a mutual friend. Whatever the reason, his understated performance comes off flat.
On the other hand, he very cleverly reflects Zatoichi's blindness in the cinematography. In many scenes, he leaves the camera on Zatoichi, with the action in the scene purposely obscured or left out of the frame. It's a neat way of forcing the audience to identify with him, and experience the action through sound alone. He also has clearly paid close attention to the sound effects, which an improvement on the original, which didn't have such great sound. But the effect is ruined in the end when Takeshi, who has kept his eyes closed for the entire film, suddenly opens them to reveal a weird silver color, and some point of view shots indicate that he's not blind after all. What? It's one thing if he wants to change the premise of the original, but this doesn't add anything to the plot, nor is it ever explained.
The bit with the eyes is just one of several attempts to be innovative that are merely jarring. Takeshi also leaves his hair that horrible blonde color he has dyed it recently. Why oh why are older male tarento sporting this look? Maybe it's an inverse way of covering the gray. According to the same Time Asia article, Takeshi claims it's to make the film seem modern, but really it's just self-indulgent. Takeshi also tries to give the sword fighting sequences a Hong Kong flavor, mainly by adding exaggerated sound effects and quick cuts, which is fine. He also clearly wants to show buckets of blood, which is also a staple of the genre, but most of the blood is added with rather poor CGI effects. It often looks transparent and moves slightly out of sync with the rest of the image. But the most startling attempt at creativity is the insertion of the Japanese tap group
The Stripes at the end doing a huge dance number that is a horrifying cross between Stomp and Bollywood, only in kimono and geta. And it goes on for a good ten minutes. I really can't figure out what it's doing in this film, aside from providing screen time for some of Takeshi's friends. So basically, after defeating the bad guys effortlessly, rather than reflecting on the tragedy of so many lives lost, the film ends with a mindless frenzy of dancing and a flurry of superfluous camera tricks. If this is Takeshi's addition to the jidaigeki genre, it's a pretty weak offering.
It will be interesting to see if the rabid Beat Takeshi fans outside Japan take to this film, and if, without knowledge of the original series, they find it innovative or just weird. Somehow, I doubt this will have the same impact as Seven Samurai, but who knows, maybe in a year or two all American action films will feature Bollywood-style dance numbers. In the meantime, almost all 26 of the original Zatoichi films have been subtitled and are widely available on DVD and VHS, even in culturally bereft stores like Blockbuster, so go out and rent a few. The first two are the best; with some of the later films, it's clear they were starting to run out of ideas. The original titles of the first two are Zatoichi monogatari and Zoku Zatoichi monogatari (both 1962, Daiei). There are various English titles, but the most common seem to be The Life and Opinions of Masseur Ichi and Zatoichi Returns, respectively.
Deborah Shamoon is a doctoral candidate in Modern Japanese Literature and Film at the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently a Japan Foundation Research Fellow at Waseda University in Tokyo. The topic of her dissertation is the image of the teenage girl in Japanese literature, film, television and comic books.
Posted by Deborah Shamoon at 2003年10月22日 23:59