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Year: 2003 
Running Time:
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 (XWide) 
Certificate: BBFC 18 Cert – Not suitable for under 18s 
Subtitles: It is expected that this film is fully subtitled. 
Directed by Unknown 
Starring: Unknown  
An image from Zatoichi

The time of the sword is upon us. Clearly sick to the back teeth of the modern hero wafting his Baretta 9mm and spraying villains while cracking duff one liners, popular movie culture has used its Janus-heads to look back in time to what might work as a worthy substitute. And, as a result, everyone from Tarantino to Oliver Stone, and everywhere from Troy to Helm's Deep is proud to display their sharp pieces of pointy metal.

But no one, and I mean no one, wields a blade like the mighty Zatoichi. Ostensibly a blind masseur travelling through feudal Japan, he is in fact a skilled swordsman with the reflexes of a cat and the senses of a tightly wound viper. Which is lucky really, considering he arrives in a town being painted red by gang warfare, finds himself at the centre of a deadly struggle and is suddenly involved in an unwanted rivalry with a master assassin ("Ichi The Killer's" Tadanobu Asano).

Of course the plot is instantly familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of movies (the astounding "Blind Fury" is based on the Zatoichi legend), but it is the execution of this mighty film that puts it in a league of its own. Dazzlingly inventive, with edge- of-your-seat swordplay (the opening fight in the rain is awesome, as expressive as anything by Kurosawa) as well as genuine emotional depth, the film is a winner on any number of levels.

At the heart of this vertiginous masterwork is Takeshi Kitano, best known for his intense Japanese gangster movies ("Sonatine", "Boiling Point" and the much-lauded "Hana-Bi"). And while his penchant for stylised violence is much in evidence here, there is also room for his ample skills as a comedian – there are some wonderfully timed comic set pieces littered throughout Zatoichi, as are there moments of subtlety, portrayed in the main by the exemplary performance of the great man himself. Zatoichi is an art movie masquerading as an action comedy filtered through a historical lens. And it's got swords in too. Genius.

Greg Taylor

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Screenings of this film:

2004/2005 Autumn Term (35mm)