The action hero played by internationally acclaimed writer/director Takeshi
Kitano in Zatoichi - blind loner by day, martial arts tail-whupper
by night - has been a box-office draw for decades. Set in Japan in the 19th
century, the original Zatoichi film series ran from 1962 to 1989 and centred on
its hero, a sightless swordsman masquerading as an itinerant masseur, as he
wandered the countryside, dispatching gangsters on behalf of terrorized
townspeople. To create his updated vision of Zatoichi, Kitano reteamed
with two frequent collaborators: cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima and
lighting designer Hitoshi Takaya.
Traditionally, Japanese films split the job of director of photography in
two: a cinematographer or chief cameraman is responsible for setting the frame,
and a lighting director or designer independently lights the compositions set by
the cameraman. As with Western crews, the details of workflow vary from show to
show, but Takaya says his is "a fairly equal collaboration" with Yanagishima.
When working on Kitano?s films, Takaya usually begins by lighting each scene or
location for 360-degree coverage in order to give Yanagishima maximum
flexibility in choosing compositions. This strategy also helps support Kitano?s
famously spontaneous shooting style, which Takaya describes as "abnormally
Kitano?s production have to be speedy because the director, a ubiquitous
fixture in Japanese entertainment, is always juggling many projects at once. "He
still hosts six or seven weekly television shows, " Yanagishima explains, "which
necessitates planning a production in a very irregular manner. He has one week
of film shooting followed by one week of recording for TV; during his ?TV week?
we can prepare for the next shooting week and Kitano can edit footage from the
last shooting week.
"This unique scheduling enables us to make films in a very organic and
improvisational way, " Takaya continues. "[The ?TV week?] gives him the time and
space to sort out his vision and get clearer ideas of what to shoot the
following week, and it gives us time to prepare for the spontaneous changes he
Zatoichi underwent a significant evolution during its four-month
preproduction period. The director solicited script input from his key crew
members throughout scouting and testing - "The whole process is really like a
jam session between jazz musicians, " says Yanagishima - and changed his mind on
several key issues. "Early in prep, he wanted the film to be very colorful, "
Takaya recalls. "But as we proceeded, he said, ?this film should be almost
Yanigishima created Zatoichi?s pale color palette by applying a
skip-bleach process to the film?s internegative at Tokyo Laboratory. (He shot
the picture on Kodak Vision2 500T 5218 and EXR 50D 5245.) He and Kitano had
never used the technique before, and the cameraman conducted extensive tests
throughout preproduction, referencing how Janusz Kaminski, ASC and Vittorio
Storaro, ASC, AIC had used the process and reading AC?s own examination of the
technique (see "Soup du Jour, " AC Nov. ?98). He and Kitano felt that an earthy,
near-monochrome look would match the distinctive visual traditions established
by other Japanese period pictures. "Also, " Yanagishima adds, "it would help
balance out the goriness of splattering blood!"
Yanagishima absorbed plenty of period-film experience during his early career
as a camera assistant at Toshiro Mifune?s production company, and he brought
those lessons to bear on Zatoichi. "When you shoot Japanese period
pieces, you always need to keep in mind the predispositions of traditional
Japanese buildings and interior decorations," he explains. "They basically
consists of vertical and lateral lines and lack diagonal lines and curves; also,
the rooms are much smaller [than modern ones]. You need to come up with
compositions where the vertical and lateral lines do not appear distorted within
the limited amount of space."
Yanagishima?s Arriflex package consisted of a 535B and a 435, and he carried
a range of Zeiss Superspeed primes and Cooke 5x20 and Angenieux 25-250mm HR
zooms, but he restricted his focal lengths for most scenes to 35mm or 50mm. He
finds that these lengths "are suitable [for maintaining] a camera-to-subject
distance where the crew and subject feel comfortable, and for capturing subjects
with natural perspective."
This also matched Kitano?s preference for "looser framing" within the
spherical 1.85:1 aspect ratio. "When I first worked with Kitano on Boiling
Point, he said that he wanted each image to be something that could stand on its
own as an individual photograph," Yanagishima recalls. "If we shot in
CinemaScope, it would either become a picture where the subject is too close or
a picture where something unnecessary is visible on either side. I haven?t tried
CinemaScope with Kitano yet, but I would like to."
Takaya says he paid little attention to establishing convention while
lighting Zatoichi. "It was my first period piece, but I didn?t try to do
it differently than a modern picture, " he says. "Metaphorically speaking, my
attitude was to approach this as a science fiction film." But Takaya also wanted
to diverge from the hard, artificial style of his last outing with Kitano,
Dolls. He settled on a pale, soft look for day scenes and an "almost visible
darkness" for nights, which he created with extensive use of "balloon-like" 4K
HMI Goya Domes and Kino Flos.
Yanagishima notes that Zatoichi?s camera movements inverts the usual
conventions for action and dialogue scenes. For action setpieces, the frame
remains relatively stationary, whereas for talking-head scenes that might
ordinarily be conveyed in static close-ups or two-shots, the camera sways back
and forth in a deliberately stylized fashion. "We had more [cutting] and
moving-camera shots in Zatoichi than we did in Kitano?s earlier films,"
the cameraman notes. "I think that [those techniques] contribute to [a sense of]
instability, which gives the viewers the feeling that something is about to
Not surprisingly, Zatoichi pays homage to the samurai epics of Akira
Kurosawa. One action scene in particular, in which the blind swordsman squares
off against an armed mob in a rainstorm, was directly inspired by the Japanese
master. "The ways Kurosawa used the rain and the effect it gave to the images
were very impressive," says Yanagishima, "and I heard some interesting stories
about the difficulties involving in shooting those scenes from my seniors at
Mifune." Kitano?s intriguing twist on the concept was to stage his "rainstorm"
in the middle of a sunny afternoon "to get a glittering look with strong
sunbeams backlighting the hard rain." Takaya enhanced the scene?s natural
contrast with 18K clear-lens HMIs, and Yanagishima covered the action with both
the 535B and 425; he overcranked the 435 at 72 fps, and Kitano applied a
"fast-motion" effect to the footage in post, giving it a strobing effect similar
to that achieved by filming with a narrow shutter angle.
If Kurosawa spirit was watching, he may have blessed the rest of the shoot
with some crucial good luck. Yanagishima recalls shooting the tapdancing finale,
which involved choreographing some 60 dancers and four cameras in an ancient
shrine in one day: "Once the filming began, the process went much more smoothly
than I expected - it only took us four hours! We later learned that Kurosawa had
shot at the entrance pass of the same shrine." Adds Takaya, "Apparently, the
location managers had scouted all over the place looking for a very
ancient-looking shrine, and that was the hundredth one they visited."