Zatoichi is, as some critics have mentioned, a film of two minds. On one hand, it is a straightforward martial arts movie, with no small amount of pulpy violence and exceedingly impressive fighters. On the other, it is a subversive act in defiance of the samurai genre, by turns overtly comedic and almost disturbingly violent, turning the viewer’s expectations on their head at every possible turn. Correspondingly, Kitano’s plotting is admittedly a bit scattered, consistently following a straightforward narrative but going on frequent digressions, though these tangents almost always end up expanding the scope and the viewer’s interest in the movie.
Zatoichi begins and exists in a state of in media res. From the start, Kitano quickly introduces the viewer to the main characters in vignettes that eschew clear exposition for specific traits and moments that will come to define these figures. The rest of the film does little in the way of tangible explanation, save for a few scattered lines and one or two extended flashbacks, but somehow every character feels fleshed out to the exact amount that each needs. Zatoichi, for example, remains to a large degree an enigma, defined largely by his abilities and interactions rather than any sense of past. The ronin and the aunt and nephew are similarly defined squarely in the present, by those around them; they have clearly defined ways and outlooks towards life and generally stick to their paths, no matter where it carries them in the narrative. On the other hand, the siblings’ past is expanded upon, both in the two flashbacks that clearly explain their desire for revenge and in the small hints through quick flashbacks that similarly define the rest of the characters.
Kitano’s style is simply a delight to watch, as he incorporates the martial arts trappings within the comedic aspects of Zatoichi. Most of the film proceeds in a relatively straightforward manner, fluidly introducing the viewer to the various locations that the film centers around in scenes that are gleefully comic. In the violent sequences, the action comes quick and brutally, using blatantly digital and cartoonish blood to both accentuate the violence and, perhaps unintentionally, subvert the notion of this traditional samurai film. Additionally, there are some incredibly pleasant stylistic touches, both in combat (a zoom in on a combatant’s face, fractured editing/slow-motion) and not (a cross-faded shot playing over another shot where someone is describing the subject of said shot, quick cut-ins of flashbacks).
Kitano’s subversion of the tradition he is imitating is perhaps strongest not in the final plot twist relating to Zatoichi (which is itself subverted at the very end), or even in the various shifting identities that are revealed throughout Zatoichi, but in the finale. Throughout the film, there are occasional, digressive presentations of farmers that seem to imitate the percussive music playing over the scene, which return rather unexpectedly in the festival finale. (Side-note: the score blends surprisingly well with the traditional geisha music played diegetically in several scenes.) The supposed climax is not in the final duel that the film had been building up to, as it takes place in a matter of seconds (in two possible scenarios), but in a glorious celebration of movement and even the intersection of past and present. After a more traditionally styled prelude, the festival resumes after the final death with a shocking burst of sound and dance, as the music becomes blatantly electronic, especially using drum machines. The percussive stomping feels traditional, and the period setting is never violated (though the use of slow-mo, canted angles, and focused close-ups does interrupt the aesthetic to some degree), but there is an unmistakably modern vibrancy to the images and motions, as every character besides Zatoichi (who does get the final shot in his own film) comes out to dance, celebrating both the positive outcome of the narrative and of the film itself. It is subversive, but genuinely enjoyable. Zatoichi isn’t necessarily a film meant to stand with the samurai classics of old, but its status as an oddity is perhaps even more important.