Of the two (count 'em!) Asian swashbuckling epics reaching our area this week, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi is best recognized as the one that doesn't carry the pandering tag line, "Quentin Tarantino presents." It's just as well, because this massively entertaining adventure is even more likely than the wonderful but stylistically alien Hero to show up Tarantino's Kill Bill diptych for the fetid geek show it was.
Displaying its superiority by way of similarity, writer/director/star Takeshi Kitano's take on the classic "blind swordsman" character of Japanese cinema outdoes Tarantino's playacting in every particular. The surface resemblance is practically spooky: There's plenty of bloody dismemberment; there are lethal ladies bent on revenge and jolting interjections of gallows humor. But whereas the Bill series' shock tactics were hung on a framework of well, nothing Zatoichi maintains an emotional connection with the viewer, keeping one hand on its sword and the other hand on our hearts even in the thick of the carnage.
Allusions to Western forms like horse opera and gangster drama make the movie an easy watch, even for the samurai-flick novice. There's a supernaturally skilled young swordsman (Tadanobu Asano) who hires himself out as a ronin to support his family, as well as a pair of geishas (Yuko Daike and Daigoro Tachibana) one with a big secret who cut a bloody swath across the 19th-century Japanese countryside on their way to a showdown with a lifelong enemy. (The term "showdown" does indeed appear in Kitano's script, as one of several anachronisms that are used to humorous effect. Others include references to characters "getting lucky" and being "hot.") A pair of criminal gangs battle each other for dominance as they shake down a terrified populace; into the role of protector walks the title hero, a wandering masseur/avenger whose sightlessness has only enhanced the other skills he uses to land first metal on his stunned foes. Not only does Kitano the actor make this worn-out stereotype of disability palatable, his tightly wound, eerily chuckling performance provides a suspenseful support structure for the entire film.
The action scenes are thrilling they can be bloody as all get-out, but only when it's necessary to prevent the carefully plotted flare-ups from sliding into kitsch (or conversely, to leaven the graver sequences with slapstick comic relief). The film's narrative structure, it must be said, falls short of perfection: The geishas' backstory is belabored, told and shown to us on two entirely separate occasions, while Zatoichi's legendary status is taken for granted in ways that afford the odd moment of confusion. That's what you get when you walk in on another culture's Saturday matinee half a century late.
Still, the movie breathes consistent life into a variety of should-be-moribund storytelling scenarios, due in no small part to its all-pervasive sense of decency. Unlike Tarantino's dopey murder sprees, in which limbs are loped off for no other reason than to see what happens, the cumulative effect of the violence in Zatoichi is to paradoxically remind us that all existence is precious. Anybody can kill a Bill, but making killing mean something again is what enables Kitano's film to pass the Blind taste test.