13 March 2004 | bob the moo
Flawed but still very enjoyable
Zatoichi is a good humoured blind man who travels making his living from being a masseur. He arrives in a small village, keeping secret his ability as a swordsman. The village is split with rival gangs, one of whom hires a troubled but talented samurai to wipe the others out. Meanwhile two beautiful geisha sisters are more than they appear. Into the middle of the impending bloody conflict walks Zatoichi.
One of the good things about Kill Bill may well be that it brings a wider audience to the martial arts genre from the Far East on a bigger scale. If that is the case then this is one of the films that they will likely come to first in the cinema, as it is about to have a full UK release. I was able to see this as part of the Birmingham Screen Festival 2004, so I was in a full audience that was ready and willing to be entertained and this may have helped me enjoy it more than a half full cinema of people who have just drifted in. With or without this atmosphere I found this to be an enjoyable, stylish, funny and violent film - but not without flaws.
The biggest flaw is the plot sadly. At it's heart it is a good story, but the manner of delivery really hamstrings it's ability to engage and grip. I have read that it was meant to be a homage/spoof of operas, and my very astute (and beautiful!) friend told me that the way of having lots of minor characters to almost cover costume changes for the main actors is a musical thing and that the film reminded her of that. While I accept that may be the reason for the way the film is, it doesn't change the fact that it didn't work for me. The films starts with difficulty - it is hard to follow with so many characters and gangs of which we are given no history to work with. This continues for much of the film, with minor characters coming and going, partly contributing to the overall story but also breaking up the flow with subplots that are never really explained or understood.
This trend continues, with the film never getting a real tension or pace to it. The conclusion of the film is a bit of a letdown - although I may have been conditioned to expect `the big showdown' in this genre. It still works pretty well but I just had a pretty big problem with the way the story flowed (or didn't). This is not to downplay how much I did enjoy it. The film has a great thread surrounding Osei where he acts as a comic relief - all his stuff is very funny and it really helps to break the tension; it's just the things like the bodyguard's subplot - nothing explained yet quite a lot of weight put on him. While it does lack pace, tension and punch, it still works well enough to hold the action together.
The fights are bloody, stylish and enjoyable although I fear that those weaned on Kill Bill's excess will not accept it as gory enough. The use of CGI blood may be a problem as well - personally I found it to compliment the otherworldly effect of the film by being almost more pronounced than `real' blood would be. The fights are enjoyable, although they are perhaps a little too brief - certainly some of the more important fights were over way too quickly and without ceremony. Generally though, the film looks amazing. Each shot is framed really well and, where the characters are still or set against a big background, many of the shots would look great on a poster. The sets are fantastic and really capture the sense of period and place. As director, Takeshi really has done well even if he could have done with a bit more help on the action front.
The cast are roundly superb even where the are let down by the material a little bit in terms of their characters. Takeshi plays his character with an easy going humour that contrasts nicely with his sudden, violent movements at key moments. Easily the standout performance though is from Taka, who brings so much to the film with his likeable, comic fool. He is very funny throughout the film and his lack of background is not a problem as none of his strands call upon that like the others do. Asano's bodyguard is interesting but sadly poorly served by the material. The two sisters are OK but again their performances are overshadowed by the fact that their sections of the film are not as strong as need be - the slightly corny CGI ending involving them is only corny because I didn't have sufficient buy in to their characters to care that much. The various villains fail to impose themselves on the film but enough is done by Takeshi and Taka to keep the audience engaged.
Overall I did really enjoy this film. It was visually very stylish, funny, engaging and enjoyable. It has flaws with the structure, the plotting in regards characters and suffers from a lack of real excitement or consistent tension but it is still more than worth seeing.