Blending period drama, Shogun Assassin-style ultra-violence, comedy and Stomp-esque musical interludes, Takeshi Kitano's "Zatoichi" is probably the most audacious film to have come out of Japan so far this decade. Kitano - a former comedian who divides his time between gameshow appearances and producing violent gangster flicks - plays the eponymous hero, a blind but deadly samurai who gets off on gambling, chopping wood and putting wrongs to right. It's a masterful turn, and one that Kitano clearly relishes, twitching and chuckling to himself before dispatching enemies with a blink-and-you'll-miss-it flash of his blade.
The plot centres around Zatoichi's battle against the local yakuza and their formidable samurai-for-hire (Ichi the Killer's Tadonabu Asano). There are showdowns aplenty and, when they do come, they're nothing if not spectacular. Digitally-enhanced, cartoony and extremely violent (think: severed limbs and gallons of blood aplenty), the fights are likely to polarise audiences almost as much as the film's climactic, er, tapdance sequence.
In between, we get a revenge drama involving a cross-dressing geisha, a wannabe samurai who charges around wearing little but armour and what looks like a nappy, slapstick galore and numerous musical interludes. In a similar vein to Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, Kitano draws his soundtrack from ambient noises - as Zatoichi wanders, sightless, through the fields, the sounds of workers' hoes builds up into a natural rhythm. It's a cute effect, and one that's deftly employed here, compounding the sense that Zatoichi - though blind - is catching something that everyone around him misses.
What impresses most is how Kitano manages to draw such unlikely elements together and, moreover, make them work so well. I can think of few directors capable of flitting from slapstick to bloodbath, or domestic tragedy to musical setpiece, as convincingly or effortlessly. Even the aforementioned tapdance number, and a lengthy flashback/musical piece midway through, make a curious kind of sense on a second viewing.
Being a Japanese-language film, this one will inevitably get only a limited audience. Those who do make the effort, however, are in for a treat. It wouldn't be overstating the case to say that you've never seen anything quite like this before.