Switching from the melancholy lyricism of his last feature, “Dolls,” Takeshi Kitano is in a playful mood in his first period piece, “Zatoichi.” This 19th century samurai tale resurrects the title figure — a blind traveling masseur and gambler who doubles as a lethal swordsman. He was the protagonist of a popular Japanese television and film series that ended more than 10 years ago. Over-plotted and at times incoherent but never dull, this is a stylishly designed, highly entertaining bloodbath full of offbeat comedy and inspired musical moments that should make a neat incision in international arthouse markets.
Having established his reputation primarily with distinctive contemporary yakuza films like “Sonatine” and “Hana-Bi,” Kitano in “Zatoichi” turns to pop culture with one of the country’s most iconic figures, a kind of Zen Zorro.
But Kitano is far too idiosyncratic a director simply to haul the swordsman out of retirement. Instead, he remodels the character — which he also plays, under his acting moniker Beat Takeshi — to fit his own stoically cool screen persona. Kitano’s Zatoichi is clearly on the side of good, but remains a detached loner, while the character traditionally befriended the townspeople he protected. The director-star also gives Zatoichi a new look, with platinum-blond hair and a blood-red cane that sheathes his ever-ready sword, and even toys with the notion Zatoichi may be faking sightlessness.
Perhaps Kitano’s greatest innovation here is two geishas that cry out for their own spin-off film: Okino (Yuko Daike) and her cross-dressing brother Osei (Daigoro Tachibana). The dangerous beauties travel the country, surviving by working as courtesans while they attempt to track down and kill the bandits that butchered their family and stole their fortune.
The “sisters” cross paths with Zatoichi in a remote mountain farm community where the townsfolk are being terrorized by the extortionist Ginzo gang. Zatoichi obtains lodgings with a humble local woman (Michiyo Ogusu) and finds a gambling partner at the dice tables in her nephew (Guadalcanal Taka).
Having grown more invincible since the recruitment of ace samurai ronin Hattori (Tadanobu Asano), the Ginzo clan is now systematically wiping out its opposition. As the clan tightens the screws on the villagers, Zatoichi is prompted to step in, going up against formidable killing machine Hattori.
Aside from the amusingly told geisha girls’ family recap, Kitano’s script feels too cluttered with backstories and digressions, which become confusing and make the film seem overlong. The intergang conflict and power structure of the Ginzo clan also are less than clear. But the invigorating spirit and infectious sense of pleasure behind the project more than overcome any cloudiness in its story.
Kitano’s fondness for goofball comedy has been a blight on films like “Getting Any?” and “Kikujiro,” but here the sly humor and knowing performances strike a winning note. The film’s considerable violence also is far more playful than shocking, with the steady stream of smoothly choreographed slice-and-dice swordplay producing a succession of severed limbs and spurting arteries. The most visually striking scene has Zatoichi wiping out a handful of opponents in pouring rain.
Composer Keiichi Suzuki’s vibrant, percussion-heavy score is used inventively in interludes where field hands work in time with the music. The real standout, however, is the celebratory closing act, in which Kitano abandons period as Japanese troupe the Stripes and cast members perform an exhilarating hip-hop tap dance number to pounding drums.
Kitano continues his association with fashion guru Yohji Yamamoto, whose costumes were a distinctive factor of “Dolls” and who oversaw the beautiful robes and kimonos designed here by Kazuko Kurosawa. Given the isolated, rural setting, period production design is less elaborate than in many Japanese costume dramas. But the mix of Norihiro Isoda’s spare structures and extensive use of natural locations — handsomely shot by Kitano’s regular d.p. Katsumi Yanagijima — gives the film a rich, full-bodied look.