By all appearances one of life's true unfortunates, the blind masseur Zatoichi wanders through samurai-era Japan led only by the tapping of his cane and a need to find the nearest dice game. Most ignore him, but he becomes a window into the souls of the ones who do pay him attention. Those who treat him kindly are rewarded. Those who try to cheat him find themselves at the wrong end of the sword he wields with uncanny skill. A fixture of Japanese pop culture since the early '60s, Zatoichi became an icon of rumpled, unlikely valor in the hands of the late actor Shintaro Katsu, who played him in more than two dozen films and a long-running television series.
For all their considerable charms, the Zatoichi films are the epitome of genre filmmaking at its most formulaic. By contrast, since branching out from TV, director-editor-writer-actor Takeshi Kitano (who, between films, also paints, writes magazine columns, and records music) has been in the habit of exploding genres from the inside. He's made revenge films with playful oases of peace between blood-drenched bursts of violence, and a kids' film paced like a Andrei Tarkovsky epic, and he shot both with a deadpan austerity to match the stone-faced expression he wears as an performer.
Kitano reviving Zatoichi is akin to Clint Eastwood deciding to take over as the Lone Ranger, and the disparity between the director's singular vision and the demands of the genre often throw his The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi off balance. Kitano throws most of his signature directorial style out the window, moving the camera and cutting like he never has before. Yet as an actor, he maintains his impenetrable mysteriousness, and as a storyteller, he keeps throwing in eccentric touches and exploring tangents that, though sometimes distracting, ultimately enrich the film. (Also, there's a tap-dance number.)
The core plot, on the other hand, is pure Zatoichi. Kitano wanders into a village in the grip of heartless gangsters and hooks up with some fellow outcasts, including helpless gambler Gadarukanaru Taka (an old Kitano comic foil) and a brother and sister who both pose as geishas in order to exact revenge. Eventually, they all have to take a stand against a crime lord protected by noble ronin Tadanobu Asano, who's taken the job only to support his ailing wife.
Like Asano, the film's instincts often seem pitted against each other. Longtime Kitano fans will puzzle at the occasionally generic direction, but his signature touches that do remain—particularly the deep concern for its characters—make Zatoichi a superior samurai film. The story never takes shape, but oddities like a geisha-house worker's seemingly endless comedy routine make the film memorable. Like Ang Lee's Hulk, it's a fusion of arthouse and multiplex instincts, and though it seems unlikely to satisfy anyone, it's just as unlikely that anyone who sees it will forget it soon.