I'm not sure what Takeshi Kitano is up to with his latest film, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi. I'm not even sure he knows what he's up to. A media-age Renaissance man, Kitano has made quite a name for himself in Japan as a stand-up comedian, a TV personality, an actor, a director, a painter, a poet, an essayist, a journalist, an author and an all-around tough guy. In this country, he's primarily known as the deadpan star of such movies as Sonatine, Kikujiro and Brother - arthouse gangster flicks that maintain such a straight face you find yourself giggling when violence erupts out of nowhere. I giggled a few times during Zatoichi, too. Among other things, it's a comedy. But it's also an incoherent mess. In his previous films, Kitano has displayed an Ozu-like control over his narratives. This one wanders around in the darkness, looking for someone to guide it to the next plot point.
Moving his facial muscles even less than usual (if only because he doesn't have the use of his eyes), Kitano plays Zatoichi, a blind masseur who, during Japan's feudal era, goes from town to town, rubbing backs and righting wrongs. To the unwary opponent, he's a harmless old man with incongruously blond hair. To the now-dead opponent, he's a lethal weapon with lightning-quick reflexes and an ability to "see" more with his four senses than most people see with five. Depending on your perspective, the fight scenes are either mercifully compressed or a little on the boring side, Zatoichi slicing up the bad guys like so much salami. But the editing's nice and crisp. And the movie's production design is nothing short of amazing - all the tile roofs and wooden posts and paper screens and straw mats and silk kimonos. Scene after scene, it's as if a Japanese woodblock print has sprung to life.
Then, as suddenly as they've sprung to life, the scenes get bogged down by the movie's wayward plot and characters. There's a woman who welcomes Zatoichi into her home, her ne'er-do-well nephew, a pair of geishas who seek revenge for the murder of their family, a samurai who seeks a new master and an entire village's worth of gentlemen who, having lived by the sword, are about to die by the sword. But Kitano can't seem to keep them all moving forward. More than once, I started to write the movie off, only to have the rug pulled out from under me, as when some farmers in a field fall into a percussive rhythm with their spadework, Ã la Japan's Kodo or our very own Stomp. Later, Kitano wraps everything up with a full-fledged musical number in which all the cast members, dancing up a storm, seem to think they've been transported to 42nd Street. For an incoherent mess, Yatoichi is often highly entertaining.