The Zatoichi character is one of the most popular cultural figures in Japanese cinema. There was a series of over 20 Zatoichi films made from the 1960s throught the '80s. In the '70s, there was a TV show as well. Zatoichi was even featured with other popular Japanese characters in films like Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo and Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman.
This film is a bit of a reboot of the series. The film was written and directed by and stars Takeshi "Beat" Kitano. Kitano started out as a stand-up comedian, and then a comic actor, but has become a respected filmmaker and action star in Japan as well. In the U.S. Kitano is probably best known as the director of Sonatine, Kikujiro and this film or for his role as Kitano in Battle Royale.
At the beginning of the movie, we meet Zatoichi relaxing on the side of the road. He is an old, blind masseur with a cane. A group of gangsters hires a kid to steal Zatoichi's cane. After acquiring his cane, the gangsters approach Zatoichi with the intention to kill him. Zatoichi quickly dispatches all of the gangsters, surprising them and the audience with his prowess.
Zatoichi enters a small village that is being fought over by gangsters. Boss Ginzo (Ittoku Kishibe) and Boss Ogi (Saburo Ishikura) are secretly in an alliance against the Funahachi gang. Ginzo and Ogi are making life miserable for the townspeople by collecting protection money every day and cheating in their gambling dens.
Zatoichi helps the poor farmer Oume (Michiyo Ookusu) bring her crops in from the field his first day in the village. She invites him to stay with her. He helps her with chores and befriends her gambling-addicted nephew, Shinkichi (Gadarukanura Taka). He also makes his presence as a master swordsman known at the gambling den and the tavern.
Also new to town is Hattori Genosuke (Tadanobu Asano), a masterless samurai. His wife (Yuri Natsukawa) is dying from sickness and he needs money to pay for a cure. He offers his services as a bodyguard to Boss Ogi and Ginzo. His services are accepted.
Two geishas also arrive in town. Seitaro Naruto (Daigoro Tachibana) and Okinu Naruto (Yuko Daike) are brother and sister. When they were children, bandits killed their entire family and they are seeking out revenge. After they were orphaned, Seitaro began dressing as a geisha so they could make money to eat as well as to facilitate their revenge. After arriving in town, the Narutos meet Zatoichi and Shinkichi. After an unsuccessful robbery attempt, the Narutos tell Zatoichi and Shinkichi their story.
After some investigation, Okinu and Seitaro began to suspect that Boss Ginzo and Boss Ogi have something to do with their family's murder. Shinkichi and Zatoichi get on the wrong side of the gangs. Hattori and Zatoichi meet and can both sense each other's skill. From there the audience can see that there are going to be a few showdowns to take place before the movie's end.
The story may sound like a mish-mash of boilerplate samurai plots and it is in a way. Nevertheless, each story is told economically and they overlap in a cohesive way that does not seem artificial.
Realistic acting also grounds the stories. While there are humorous moments and outrageous fight scenes, each character is believable as a real person.
As for the fight scenes, they are very impressive. They are quick, bloody, and gory. They are choreographed well and punched up by overly loud sound effects. Kitano wanted to make the swordfights more realistic, so there are few parries and one slice kill. CGI is used effectively to show blood and dismemberment. The CGI does not linger, so there is not too much time for it to look fake. The fights feel like heightened reality because of sound effects and CGI. They are well paced throughout the movie, not all loaded at the end.