To play Zat?ichi is an impossible thing to do. The reason is, that Zat?ici is
synonymous with Shintaro Katsu, who played the part of the blind swordsman in 26
films between 1962 to 1989. "Zat?ichi and Katsu are mentioned in the same
breath,", Kitano says and continues, "and that worried me."
But why would Kitano then make "Zat?ichi"?
The answer to that question is Chieko Sait?.
Sait? began as a stripper in the early forties, worked at the Rokku-za strip
theatre until 1962, where she bought her first club; Ten years later she had
more than twenty across Japan and had connections with all major players. It was
in one of her clubs Sait? met Katsu, with whom she became very close friends.
Katsu was always generous and when he was short of cash, he borrowed money from
Sait?. When Katsu's debt-plagued film company, Katsu Productions, faced
bankruptcy, Sait? stepped in and helped him. As it later went bankrupt anyway,
that he couldn't pay her back and even that he was arrested for smuggling drugs
in 1990, didn't affect her devotion to Katsu. He was her friend. That is why
Chieko Sait? is called "Mama." To know her is to be loved by her, to be loved by
One can argue, that "Zatoichi" began in 1996 with Takashi Miike giving an
interview talking about future plans, in which he says:
"I plan to make some sort of jidai-geki. Traditional with kimonos, swords
and Samurais, as "Lone Wold and Cub" or "Zatoichi". Its going to be for all of
the family. It will be a mixture of Shakespeare and Samurais. (IndieWire
It may have been a bit premature for Miike, but he did begin exploring the
idea and when, in 1997, after the death of Katsu, Saito Entertainment wanted to
revive the Zatoichi character with other directors and actors, Miike approached
Saito with his project. It is uncertain how involved Saito was in Miike's
project. Kitano told Tony Rayns, that Saito may have been trying to do something
with Miike's project, but she turned it down sometime around 1998. The main
reason was most likely that Miike intended to kill Ichi (his story was called
"The Last Zatoichi"). However before turning it down, Miike had announced in
"Kinema Junpo", that he was going to make Zatoichi with Kitano as the lead, so
the project had been alive until then.
At some point in between here Saito Entertainment had discussed plan with
Mori from Office Kitano, but he had declined. From OK's stand point, if Kitano
stars, Kitano also directs.
Saito finally met Kitano in 1999, when some of her girls performed on one of
his shows, and she instantly fell in love with him. They instantly hit it off
and became very good friends. In fact, she felt so close, that when Kitano
mothers died, she decided that now she was his mother. This is somewhat ironic,
as she sort of had known Kitano his entire carreer, as she owned the very
theatre he made his breakthru in back in 1973.
There are two stories about Saito approached Kitano. One is that it happend
thru Office Kitano. The other is most likely truer but a romatisized verision by
As the story goes, he and Saito were visiting Katsu's gravesite. It was
raining and they both stood at his grave with umbrellas. As they stood there in
the rain, Saito turned to Kitano and asked, if he wanted to make "Zatoichi".
Kitano declined. She asked him again, and he declined again. After a while he
asked her, "Do I understand this correctly when I say, that you wont stop
bugging me until I say yes?", to which she said "Yes!".
Having Carte Blance, Kitano knew he had to rethink Zat?ichi to make him work.
"I believe, that if I tried to imitate Katsu, then the audience would object
to it", Kitano says and continues, "so I decided, that I should make
everybody think it's a completely new thing." Kitano dyed his hair blond, he
redesigned his swordkane, he made Zat?ichi amoral and a man who kills before
asking. Being blind Zat?ichi just draws and kills or as Kitano says "There is
no glaring at the opponent as Zat?ichi is drawing his sword. The fight is over
before it begins."
Another difference was that Kitano stepped into the background and gave Asano
more screen time. Not only did he make him go thru three months of swordfight
practice, he also made him sympathetic and gave him a wife. But of all the
differences, the boldest move by Kitano was the adding of modern music and
dance, especially tap dance.
Zatoichi (Kitano) is wandering a remote mountain area. Helping an old woman,
he gets shelter for the night and learns, that the town is terrorized by gangs -
especially the Ginzo gang. Meanwhile the ronin Hattori (Asano) seeks employment
as a bodyguard, to be able to buy medicine for his sick wife, and gets hired by
Ginzo, who with a ronin by his side, now begin to wipe out his enemies.
Zatoichi doesn?t get involved. Instead he spends his pastime playing dice
(odd even). Here he meets the nephew of the old woman he stays at. Together they
win a small fortune and decide to spend the night in the company of two geisha.
But they are not ordinary geisha: Okino (Daike) and her cross dressing brother
(Tachibana) are assassins, who have spend most of their life tracking down those
behind the killing of their family.
Soon it becomes impossible for Zatoichi to stay uninvolved and he has to step
up and put an end to the terror. The outcome is bloody.
Few realise the task of reinventing something as iconographic as Zatoichi.
One has to remain faithful, yet change everything. When speaking with Kitano, he
told me how he undertook it:
"Just like soccer basically is 22 men and 1 ball, so is Zatoichi basically
a blind man, a sword cane and lots of bad guys"
What Kitano hereby meant was, that the framework of the films are imbedded in
the Japanese audience. Everyone knows what a Zatoichi film is and is about.
Kitano wilfully ignored that the film would be seen by a non Japanese audience.
An advantage, as that allowed Kitano to virtually ignore character background,
as they were known or could be reasoned by the audience.
Kitano told Ciment, that "Zatoichi" basically was four parts: (1) Zatoichi
enters a small town (2) Zatoichi meets the townspeople and the bad guy (3) Alot
of fighting and (4) The happy end.
The first thing that was changed
was the character of Zatoichi. Where Katsu?s Zatoichi went from being bald to
wild bushy dark hair, Kitano seemed to chose the simple inversion: short blond
hair. But physical appearance is one thing, the character is more, so Kitano
made his Zatoichi into a killer without moral. He is blind, hence he doesn?t
judge, either way: he just kills. The last changes were minor cosmetic ones,
like changing his sword cane from wood to red.
The stroke of genius in character development was however what Kitano did
with the villain Hattori. Normally the "bad swordsman" in "Zatoichi" films are
merely one dimensional, but Kitano gave Hattori a life of his own. Here we have
a former Samurai, a sword master, who got fired, hence lost all privileges and
became a common ronin, after being beaten by a ronin in a contest. Ever since,
Hattori has wandered the land, seeking new employment, hoping one day to become
Samurai again, yet all he is able to become, in these the last days of the
Samurai (1860s), is a bodyguard, which is a nicer word for assassin. Worse, than
having lost all: Hattori has to live with the humiliation, as he is unable to
regain his face. Worse even: his wife becomes very ill and Hattori has to seek
employment as "bodyguard" for criminals to pay for her medicine. As Kitano
pointed out to Ciment, usually it was Zatoichi who had a love interest, here it
was the "bad swordsman", which is why Kitano gave him a beautiful wife.
By itself, this characterisation would make a great Samurai film, paying
homage to Kobayashi, who uses a similar motif in "Hara-Kiri", but for Kitano it
part of the reinvention, who continued by making the "bad swordsman" as
important, if not more, as Zatoichi. As the final touch, Kitano cast Tadanobu
Asano, the hottest Japanese actor of today, in the role: The sympathy was with
Hattori for sure.
My personal favourite addition are the Geisha assassins. Originally Kitano
added a geisha for practical reasons towards the plot, but then Saito came and
asked Kitano if he had a part for one of her young actors, who worked as a
female impersonator. Kitano said sure and casted him as the geisha - now that is
a inversion if any - but later added a second female geisha. And suddenly a new
scenario arose in the mid of Kitano.
Even lesser characters than Hattori, the Geisha twins also have a detailed
background. They witnessed their family being killed and are now seeking
revenge. The male geisha came from necessity: Osei was dressed as a girl and
sexually abused by "their uncle", then as they escaped and lived on the streets,
Osei would offer "herself" to men. This was their way of survival. Again, their
character background would make a great film, paying homage to Ichikawa and his
"Yukinojo henge", and again, Kitano merely moved supporting parts up, ahead of
The character of Zatoichi has no background at all. He either wanders, plays
dice or chops up people with his cane. The name alone, and its legacy, is enough
to carry the film and the part. As mentioned above, for Kitano the framework of
Zatoichi was enough, but he further stresses, that if he had added any human
characteristic to the character, he would have risced immitating Katsu.
Kitano dislikes swordfights.
Usually they are too long and: "...it looks like they are trying to hit their
opponents sword rather than their opponent." In "Zatoichi", Kitano wanted
something fast and forceful.
He found what he was looking for in Manga. Kitano elaborates:
"Not a specific Manga, but I used the idiosyncratically way of presenting
sword fighting, which we only can find in Manga. For example, sudden transitions
from a wide long shot to the extreme close up, or the visibility of the blood on
Employing various elements from both Kenjutsu and Iaijutsu - avoid / parry
then cut - using the Manga style and exaggerated blood splatter, Kitano was able
to create an extreme forceful depiction of sword fights and thereby
To achieve this mise-en-scene of the fight sequences, Kitano employed two
cameras: The camera operator held camera n? 1, with precise instructions on
framing and the movements, his assistant held the second camera, with
instructions to improvise and to be spontaneous. This not only allowed for the
transition shots, but added an extra element of dynamics to them, as the footage
by camera n? 1 was disciplined and the footage by camera n? 2 was organic and
Without parallel, the biggest and
most controversial addition in "Zatoichi" is the end sequence: A more than five
minutes long musical number involving tap dancing. The notion alone is enough to
make people drop their jaws.
Actually there is nothing unusual about it. Most jidei-geki ends with a
festival, where the peasants or townspeople celebrate the end of oppression, so
it was natural for Kitano to end his "Zatoichi" likewise. But when thinking
about it, Kitano instantly thought about Takatsuki dancing and wanted to employ
Normally a part of shosa-goto (dance drama), this Kabuki equivalent to our
musicals often employ a special form of tap dance, Takatsuki, performed with the
traditional Japanese clog. To assist him, Kitano employed Hidobah, the leader of
the dance troop "The Stripes". Hidobah originally studied tap dancing under
Gregory Hines, and leaned about its history, thus when returning to Japan, he
began to study Japanese tap dance history and contemporize it.
Significant here is the sound and the rhythm. Throughout "Zatoichi" employs
natural noises as rhythm, from rain hitting different objects to the sounds of
tools building a house.
What makes it an eye-popper is the form in contrast to the body of the film.
The final act starts out as traditional Takatsuki, but soon changes into
something that unites not just the villagers, but expands to unite the cast
members, as everyone, even those earlier dead, get on stage and participate in
the dance. More than just a happy-end, this is a celebration of the entire film:
arguable something of the most original and beautiful Kitano ever has put on
As a last note on this subject, Kitano would love to make an entire film
solely with tap dance and no dialogue.
Is it a Kitano film?
"Zatoichi" has been
attacked by many for being weak, both in story and structure, for lacking the
depth which Kitano has accustomed us too since "Kids return" and for many other
things. However one has to remember, that Kitano, more or less, was forced to
make "Zatoichi": And with that in mind, it is actually pretty impressive what he
managed to get out of it.
One must also remember, never to try to put Kitano into a box. While he is an
auteur, while he has a signature, he will stray away from anything he stands for
in a moment, if he feels that it limits and constrains him. He will also tell
you whatever you want to hear, if you maintain a certain line of questioning or
if the questions bore him. He has always played a significant part in the failed
understanding of his own art, but it always begins with people not understanding
"Zatoichi" is a Kitano film: his auteurist signature in form of the motif of
duality, here by proxy of pretending, is enough to suggest so. But looking past
the outer layers, "Zatoichi" is a film where Kitano, as always, plays with form
and function, experiments with editing (here using the films sounds and rhythm
as a guide) and finally there is the dance act, which just has Kitano written
all over it; And as said above, arguable the most beautiful thing Kitano ever
It is true that "Zatoichi" is weak in structure, but as Zatoichi for more
than a generation has been a cultural convention in Japan, and that Kitano tried
hard to create something new, it is surprising how original it is. Remaking
classics like "Shichinin no Samurai" would have been easier. But regardless of
its structure, there are passages in "Zatoichi", where the film just becomes
more than film and transcends: One such scene is the parallel montage of Osei
dancing as a child and adult. Alone one such sequence in a film makes up for any
weakness and being able to make such a sequence is why Kitano is one of the
greatest living filmmakers.