By odd chance, two of Japan's most idiosyncratic directors have films opening in the Boston area today. They're also the two that unfamiliar moviegoers tend to confuse. For the record, Takashi Miike is the fearsome connoisseur of grindhouse violence and yakuza mayhem whose latest is the surreal "Gozu" (see review on Page D5). Takeshi Kitano, on the other hand, is a more refined proposition: a lanky, tough-minded aesthete who acts in his own films, usually under the name "Beat" Kitano, and who's equally at home with brooding gangster noirs and subtle arthouse dramas.
It's Kitano who directs and stars in "The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi," an homage that retools the chassis of a beloved Japanese action-movie series and comes up with a blood-spurting auteurist ride. Not for Kitano the gonzo pastiche of Quentin Tarantino and "Kill Bill" -- "Zatoichi" breaks the mold with respect, and yet it's still witty, gruesome, and artful fun. The original series never tackled transvestitism and extended dance sequences. Kitano wants to correct that oversight.
In most of the 26 "Zatoichi" films made from 1962 to 1974 (including one 1988 follow-up), Shintaro Katsu played the title role of the blind masseur who wanders the byways of Tokugawa-era Japan and reveals his martial arts skills -- and the sword hidden in his cane -- on a need-to-die basis. (These originals are being released on DVD by Home Vision Entertainment; Rutger Hauer starred in a 1989 Hollywood version, "Blind Fury.") Katsu's Zatoichi was a dumpy little guy, overlooked by the villains he ended up dispatching, but Kitano is a more imposing presence, even under the blond coif he adopts here. His eyes remain closed and his head bowed, but there's never any doubt the man is lethal.
Entering a rural town fought over by warring clans, the masseur is instinctively drawn to the downtrodden: an old lady (Michiyo Ookusu) and her gambling-crazy nephew (Gadarukanaru Taka, scoring laughs as the film's comic relief), and two geisha with a score to settle. Ears attuned to the nuances others miss, Zatoichi knows that one of the geisha, O-Kinu (Yuuko Daike), has a knife concealed in the neck of her shamisen, while the other, O-Sei (Daigoro Tachibana), is actually a man. Soon he has heard the story of a young brother and sister wronged by a gang of cutthroats, and Kitano the director has indulged in a luxuriant old-school flashback.
The clans are in disarray, with plots and counterplots and new fighters constantly brought in; one of these is Gennosuke Hattori, a mournful ronin, or freelance samurai, with unbeatable skills. Hattori is played by Tadanobu Asano, a young actor considered the Johnny Depp of Japan, and the stage is set not only for a clash of characters but of stars. Early on, Zatoichi and Hattori meet, draw swords, and come to a quick and dignified impasse.
Anyway, Hattori is too busy butchering his employer's rivals and Zatoichi is fending off the attackers the gambling bosses keep sending his way after he cleans them out and kills their murderous croupiers (hint: never play dice with a blind man). The many fight sequences in "Zatoichi" are balletic and unforgiving, and Kitano uses computer-generated effects to augment the geysers of blood and flying limbs. If the CGI occasionally looks fake, well, so in their own way did the old films -- a B-movie ritual that's among the many things the director honors here.
In spite of the lopped fingers and moments of broad, bawdy humor -- and despite the occasional narrative lull -- "Zatoichi" is the work of a sophisticated filmmaker with a touch of the dilettante. How else to explain the stomping musical numbers the town farmers break into every so often, or the village idiot and samurai wannabe who dashes through the proceedings yelling at the top of his lungs?
If there's a larger theme in "Zatoichi," it's that nobody is quite who he or she seems: Not that husky geisha, not the doddering old barman, and certainly not the blind masseur groping his way down the road. As Kitano puckishly reminds us, a disguise only works if you have eyes to see it.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.