Takeshi Kitano's cinematic style answers to nobody. You either accept it or you don't, and if you're going to derive enjoyment out of his films, you have to understand and accept his quirky approach towards narrative -- such as never signalling a flashback, never introducing characters by name, and lurching expositions.
I had expected that his remake of Zatoichi would become the most accessible of his films, but despite the samurai-film milieu, Kitano's style remains as difficult to grasp as ever. And the middle of the film lags quite a bit, when the back story of the two geishas and the gambling nephew's subplot take over and Zatoichi disappears for 20, 30 minutes straight.
But I'd seen enough Kitano films to be prepared for this. And the reward lies in stunning action choreography, beautiful cinematography, a terrific acting turn from Kitano himself, and some of the best sight gags in the Kitano catalogue. Comedy has always been the backbone of his films, and in Zatoichi he crafts some of his funniest situations and characters. Kitano himself is perfect for this role, with his immense physical presence, yet he constantly expresses that little odd sliver of tenderness and humour that has always made his characters so watchable.
What truly amazes are the action scenes. Characters move with grace and power, and the sound effects are realistic and pack a wallop -- no comic-book whooshes and noises here. Fight choreographer Tatsumi Nikamoto, in a short interview on this DVD, hits the nail on the head: Kitano uses his entire body to drive blows and directs his actors to do the same, making for kinetic swordplay scenes that rank with some of the best martial-arts scenes ever filmed. The choreography, shooting and editing here are leagues above Kill Bill Vol. 1's blood-spraying, overly edited scenes and won't even pale alongside some of Lau Chia-liang and Tang Chia's best work with Chang Cheh.
There are traces of Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Sanjuro in this film, in terms of the dark humour, the warring gangs, and the one-swift-blow approach towards duelling rather than clashing, extended swordfights, and watching Zatoichi cut a swath through the hordes, you might think Toshiro Mifune were still alive -- and that's a mighty feat.
The long period of waiting for plot progressions in the middle does cut into the enjoyment, and overall the pacing of this film is less accessible than Brother, but the best parts of Zatoichi are thrilling beyond words. A must-watch, though newcomers to Kitano are advised to check out Brother first.
One more word about this DVD: The strange cover and the "double bill" moniker may suggest this is a pirated copy, like one of those "10 Jackie Chan movies on one disc" releases by no-name companies, but looking at the disc, I think it's authentic. Miramax simply made a weird choice by including Sonatine in the package and making the package look inexplicably like those pulpier releases. Why Sonatine? I have no idea, since it has nothing to do with Zatoichi, despite being a pretty good film in itself. But the picture transfer on both films is good, the supplemental materials well put together, and everything suggests that this disc is indeed an official release. So don't be fooled by the packaging.