Takeshi Kitano's “The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi,” a boisterous and improbably entertaining action comedy (sprayed with an occasional spurt of blood and a musical number or two) premiering in Geneva at the Smith Opera House Friday night, is based on a 19th-century Japanese legend about the blind masseur who conceals a lightning sword inside his walking stick, all the better to steal from muggers and restore money to those who were robbed. He is the embodiment of blind justice and has an eccentric sense of humor.
The story was the basis of a popular series of 1960s Japanese films, which Kitano's tour-de-farce resembles not at all.
With hair dyed platinum and face frozen into an expression between a scowl and a smile, Kitano (who directs under the name Takeshi and acts under the nickname “Beat”) resembles a debauched Billy Idol whose hearing is unusually acute.
From his film's stylized opening scene, Kitano mixes a cocktail of action and farce that is fizzily intoxicating. See poor Zatoichi (pronounced “za-toe-ee-chee”), a stooped blind man, sitting by a dusty road near his cane. Swaggering samurais dare a youth to swipe the stick. Cocking his head to catch the drift of his tormentors, ears pricked to gauge the precise location of their weapons, Zatoichi electrifyingly blindsides them and wipes those smirks off their faces. He may be sightless, but his vision is better than 20/20.
As a writer, Kitano is interested in the mythic stranger who comes out of nowhere to the aid of wronged geishas and farmers. As an actor, though, he enjoys playing Zatoichi as the misjudged geezer who can outpace and outwit young samurai, a codger whose idea of a joke is to paint eyeballs on his lids.
Kitano the director favors panoramic shots, blitzkrieg editing that flashes like Zatoichi's sword, and percussive rhythms on the soundtrack. For one sublime sequence the camera pauses on farmers in a field, hoeing contrapuntally, making music while making furrows.
The violence is discreet, but intense. Kitano does not employ the prolonged bloodbath ballets common in recent martial-arts films. To maximum effect, he uses a minimal splash of violence in sequences more likely to last five seconds than five minutes. And in order to suggest Zatoichi's heightened sensory capacity, the sound is exaggerated.
Kitano is the prodigiously accomplished actor/director of the yakuza films “Sonatine” (1994) and “Fireworks” (1998).
The Smith screens “The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi” at 7 p.m. on Feb. 4 and 5, at 2 p.m. on Feb. 6, and at 7 p.m. on Feb. 7 and 8. Rated R for strong, stylized bloody violence, this film has a running time of one hours, 56 minutes. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for students and senior citizens. All seats are $2 on Tuesday. Call 315-781-5483 or toll-free 866-355-5483 for details or to reserve tickets.
The Sunday Movie Roundtable meets following the matinee screening on February 6. The Smith invites patrons to stay after and participate in insightful discussion about the film lead by The Smith's Arts-in-Education Director RJ Rapoza. The discussion takes place in The Smith's lower-level cabaret.