Miramax thinks you don’t know who Zatoichi is. That’s why the distributor, long notorious for its tinkering, altered the name of Japanese multimedia auteur Takeshi Kitano’s latest film to The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi. The change makes a certain amount of sense for American viewers who’ve seen none of the 26 movies featuring the hyperaware blind masseur who is, forever surprisingly, a master of swordplay. Yet writer-director-actor Kitano’s Zatoichi, much like Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate, is less a remake than a self-conscious riff on its source material. To get it, the audience needs to know more than just that Zatoichi is a blind swordsman.
In the United States, the best-known film of the series is probably Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, featuring Akira Kurosawa’s favorite leading man, Toshiro Mifune. Although neither his title nor Miramax’s indicates it, Kitano has plotted a similar meeting: This film spends as much time with Gennosuke Hattori (Tadanobu Asano) as with the masseur. Indeed, Kitano’s first period movie probably has its origins in Nagisa Oshima’s 1999 Taboo, a homoerotic samurai picture that featured both Asano and Kitano. Although the bleached-blond and sometimes giggly actor/director can hardly help but dominate the scenes in which he plays Zatoichi, he’s given himself a relatively small role. Much of the story concerns Hattori, the classic figure of a masterless samurai who sells his skills to villains in order to support his ailing wife—who typically protests that she would rather die than be the cause of her husband’s disgrace.
As numerous cross-cultural adaptations have demonstrated, samurai films are closely related to cowboy movies. Both are customarily set in lawless towns and countrysides, and they both feature stoic heroes who defend the common people but have no patience for legal niceties. In Zatoichi’s opening scene, a group of thugs instruct a boy to steal the blind man’s cane, a crimson shaft that hides a thin saber. They then taunt Zatoichi for losing his staff, but their mirth is short-lived. With lightning movements—and his eyes closed—the masseur regains his weapon and dispatches his tormentors.
After this gory introduction, painted red with spurting CGI blood, Zatoichi wanders into a town run by the thuggish Ginzo clan. There he’s befriended by some lower-caste types, including Shinkichi (Gadarukanaru Taka), a buffoonish gambler who’s delighted by Zatoichi’s ability to hear whether dice are about to come up even or odd. Hattori also arrives, and after showing his fundamental decency by scaring off an extortionist, he’s promptly hired by the Ginzo gang lords. Following close behind the two men is a pair of geishas (Yui Natsukawa and Yuko Daike) with several secrets, including the fact that they’ve been systematically tracking and killing the thieves who once murdered their family. They’re still looking for the masterminds—and, it turns out, have come to the right place.
Complicated by abrupt flashbacks, the three strands of this tale provide plenty of plot. Yet Zatoichi works mostly as a series of set pieces, some savage, some comic, and some—believe it or not—musical. As always, Kitano is very concerned with rhythm and counterpoint. This includes his customary outbursts of violence, which for all their brutality are fundamentally slapstick. The director’s most outlandish idea is to turn scenes of peasants working in the fields into something resembling dance numbers, with repetitive movements scored (by composer Keiichi Suzuki) to percussive everyday sounds. The film closes with an improbably charming number that conflates the ending of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai with the foot-stomping dances of Kabuki and even a bit of Riverdance. It’s evidence that Kitano, in his laconic way, is more an entertainer than a moralist.
Just as Demme no doubt esteems the original Manchurian Candidate, Kitano clearly means no disrespect to Zatoichi. And his film, a critical and popular hit in Japan, seems to have satisfied fans of the masseur/swordsman’s adventures. Still, this Zatoichi has little to do with the spirit of the original character. What matters to Kitano is not narrative, let alone the concerns that motivated the Zatoichi played for 27 years by Shintaro Katsu: honor, regret, loneliness, and the revenge of the lower classes against their oppressors. Although the director doggedly connects the dots, several of the movie’s later developments—including identifying the town’s true crime boss and a bit of confusion about whether or not the masseur is actually blind—simply fall flat.
Aside from the bond between the solitary warrior and his dying wife—also a theme of Kitano’s Fireworks—this update is primarily a series of exercises in deadpan demeanor and sudden movement. For Kitano, who seems to owe as much to Buster Keaton as Jackie Chan does to Harold Lloyd, a well-timed smirk is just as deadly as an unexpected sword blow. As effective as it is, The Blind Swordsman is a showcase not for classical storytelling, but for postmodern attitude.
The narrative pas de deux is Patrice Leconte’s specialty. Of his films that have been released in the United States, only the historical ones (Ridicule and The Widow of Saint-Pierre) are fundamentally something other than duets. So it was very nearly inevitable that the director would someday turn his attention to a form of privileged dialogue commonly depicted in French cinema: the exchange between patient and psychiatrist.
That’s what Intimate Strangers does—but with a twist. In fact, there are a number of twists in this smart, playful entertainment, but only one is essential to the premise. An unnamed, somewhat scattered woman arrives for an appointment at a man’s Paris office-apartment, lights a cigarette, and begins to blurt her problem: Her marriage has gone bad, and she and her husband haven’t made love in six months. William (Fabrice Luchini) is clearly surprised, but he just listens, the way psychoanalysts do. Only he’s not a shrink—he’s a tax accountant, used to discussing clients’ financial rather than erotic intimacies.
If Intimate Strangers were what Hollywood calls “high concept,” it would somehow sustain this confusion for most of its 104 minutes. Instead, Jérôme Tonnerre’s script moves quickly beyond the couple’s mistaken meeting. After realizing that William is not a shrink, Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire) stops visiting him, but she is soon drawn back to his office. She begins to reveal more of herself: She’s a clerk in an expensive handbag and luggage shop, her great but lost passion is ballet, and she loves her brutish husband (Gilbert Melki, the cop in Lucas Belvaux’s The Trilogy). But she’s not happy with his current obsession, which involves Anna’s reawakening his libido by having sex with other men.
The lonely, methodical William has recently lost his librarian girlfriend, Jeanne (Anne Brochet), to a fitness-club operator with a brash, almost-American manner. The tax expert becomes increasingly beguiled by Anna, and he eventually turns to consulting the psychoanalyst she initially failed to visit, Dr. Monnier (Michel Duchaussoy). The good doctor speculates that Anna may not really be married, and that she could have intentionally entered William’s office rather than Monnier’s. Anna, the shrink mischievously says, may be “a fake neurotic consulting a fake psychiatrist.”
But which one of them is the neurotic? As the story progresses, it appears that Anna is actually less trapped than William. Although she doesn’t rival many of the free spirits Bonnaire has played over the years, the elegant, striking Anna has a stronger life force than the timid, lumpy accountant. William’s attempts to free himself from his routine—going to his office without a tie, dancing alone in his apartment to Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” rather than listening to his customary classical music—are stock repressed-guy moments. In one scene, Anna accidentally causes a small fire in William’s office, then opens the window to clear the air, which allows the wind to scatter his carefully arranged papers—thus officially announcing that she’s there to mess up his overtidy life.
This is the stuff of a second-rate screwball comedy, yet Intimate Strangers always suggests the possibility of a darker outcome—and not just because the restless, handheld camerawork is clearly not in the Tracy-Hepburn tradition. Some of the undertones linger from Leconte’s earlier work: Bonnaire played half of the central couple in the director’s 1989 Monsieur Hire, in which the relationship between two strangers proceeded in a ominously Hitchcockian key. And William lends Anna a copy of The Beast in the Jungle, a Henry James novella that might be the story of the accountant’s life: It’s about a man who never acts on his love for a sickly woman because he’s paralyzed by the idea that a grand destiny awaits him.
What finally happens falls short of grand destiny, but it is a change. To say more would spoil the movie’s principal mystery: whether it’s primarily a romance, a thriller, or a satire. Like Leconte’s previous film, The Man on the Train, this one is in part all three. Its final choice of emphasis is a mild letdown, but that’s less important than the way it juggles humor, passion, and apprehension. Intimate Strangers is one of the director’s gentler efforts, but it nonetheless confounds expectations.CP