Zatoichi: The Blind Assassin

Nothing is as it seems.

The masseuse/samurai known as the blind assassin Zatoichi, so long a part of Japanese pulp fiction and film, is given renewed vigor by master writer/director/actor Takeshi Kitano ("Kikujiro") in "Zatoichi: The Blind Assassin." Zatoichi (Kitano with bleached hair and his usually effective tick) carries his blindness like a sword-fighting Tiresias, an implacable and unbeatable force so smart and swift, that the robust young men he fights and kills, including other samurai, are like children by contrast.

And children are an ongoing motif for Kitano, whose "Kikujiro" had a sweetness even when he played a kind of low-level yakusa thug to a clueless 9 year old. In "Assassin" he helps 2 young geishas avenge their parents' murders while showing any youngster the zen-like control and spirituality of a samurai. The children who practice swordplay and the childlike adults, including a village idiot, learn that protection rackets and gambling can be hazardous to their health.

The lessons can't be lost on the myriad yakuzas punks he must dispatch to defend himself or on the audience that sees what the blind man does--nothing is as it seems, and after a long life of observing, we all may learn nothing except to be aware that nothing is as it seems.

This all may seem pretty heavy and dreary until you give into its subtle humor, for instance when the buffoon gambler decides he wants to look like the boy in hiding as a pretty geisha or another samurai. The tap dancing conclusion brings the American musical joie de vivre to lighten the preceding bloody business. The inclusion of the actors, yakuzas and geishas alike, in the chorus is a confirmation that Kitano understands the heroic and comedic elements of the samurai genre. His humanism is once again an important ingredient of his success; his own acting brings an eccentric, attractive presence, a wise personage with a dry sense of humor and wisdom sneaking out of a wry smile.