The great Bruce Lee twirled his limbs around with such fearsome speed and control that he seemed to be slicing through time itself. His whirling, precision chop kills weren’t just fast – they were instantaneous, and thus beautiful. I was reminded of the gratifying shock-force of Lee’s fleet savagery when I saw The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, in which the director and star, Takeshi Kitano, revives the venerable hero of Japanese action cinema. From 1962 to 1989, Zatoichi, played by the endearingly gruff Shintaro Katsu, was the subject of 26 feature films and more than 100 television episodes. Drawing on that mystique, Kitano, his hair dyed a startling blond, plays him as the ultimate pop myth of a samurai – a blind and wandering 19th-century masseur who eases down country roads with an old man’s cautious shuffle, leaning on what appears to be an ornate red cane. Actually, it’s a sheathed sword, and whenever he draws its gleaming blade, the movie enters what I can only describe as slasher heaven.
Poised before a foe, Zatoichi keeps his eyes calmly closed, yet his other senses are pure, his strokes thrilling in their razory suddenness. He stands in perfect serenity, and then – rip! rip! – he has sliced, with cathartic finality, through someone’s chest, or neck, or eyes. His sword becomes a magic wand of death. Each stroke, accompanied by a startling smash of sound, produces a tiny shower of bright red blood, yet the eruptions happen too quickly, in their way, to be over-the-top. How lightning a killer is Zatoichi? He’s faster than Zorro, Achilles, or Freddy Krueger. He makes Pei Mei look like a putz.
This is well beyond fury – it’s Zen annihilation. You’d think that filmmakers would have exhausted the possibilities of how to depict a blade slicing through someone’s torso, but Kitano had an inspired idea: He uses digital technology to create profoundly physical meetings of steel and flesh and blood. Though you can occasionally tell that you’re watching a synthetic image, the effect is to give swordplay a smooth, brutal lethality it has never had on screen before.
The odd thing is, as much as I adored the action in ”Zatoichi,” everything else about the movie is awful. Takeshi Kitano is a brazen stylist who indulges in happy flights of delirium, such as the group tap dance at the end. He is also, however, a hopelessly convoluted and inept storyteller. His maddeningly fragmentary gangster films, like Fireworks and Sonatine, have made him the darling of critics, yet I have never been able to sit through them. I would gladly summarize what happens in ”Zatoichi” – it has something to do with a criminal gang trying to take over a village, as well as a pair of geisha out to avenge their family’s death – except that I could scarcely make heads or tails of it. The movie, quite simply, goes to sleep whenever Zatoichi isn’t fighting. When he is, it’s a pulp dazzler.