Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Blade runners
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Blade runners

Samurai are big in Western pop culture these days, what with Tom Cruise’s hit “The Last Samurai” and of course, Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” movies.

Takeshi Kitano as a bleached-blonde version of the blind swordsman, Zatoichi.

The “Kill Bill” movies are a typical Tarantino mish-mash of homage to various Asian action genres, including the samurai movies. That’s really what the movie was, a Westernized tale of a (woman) lone samurai’s quest for justice and revenge. The genre has a long and rich history in Japanese literature, arts, and pop culture including television and film.

The samurai is Japan’s cowboy. The romantic image of the hero (or anti-hero, or even bandit) wielding a razor-sharp sword and taking on all comers in climactic fights is a part of Japan’s mythic history.

Sure, that image is tarnished by the brutality of the samurai, who have been depicted as cold-hearted and inclined to kill a peasant for looking cross-eyed at him. But in many fabled stories, the samurai is an iconoclastic character, a loner, a man who lives by an unwavering internal code of ethics and is uncompromising in his mastery of any pursuit, from martial arts to the fine arts.

And like Westerns, samurai have a long and distinguished history in Japan’s movies. But of the many famous swordsmen who’ve graced Japanese screens the longest-running character in the in the sword-fighting, or “chambara” genre, is that of Zatoichi, the blind masseuse who’s a master swordsman who fights by instinct and the help of heightened remaining senses.

The character first appeared in the movie “Zatoichi Monogatari” in 1962, starring Shintaro Katsu. He made a career of Zatoichi, whom audiences loved, and played the character in 26 movies including the 1989 film simply titled “Zatoichi.”

Now, a new chapter of the Zatoichi franchise has been released, “Zatoichi, The Blind Swordsman,” starring and directed by Takeshi Kitano. Kitano is the dead-panned actor who’s best-known in the U.S. for his many roles as a Japanese gangster – brooding, brutal characters who are not unlike samurai, who vent their fury in sudden displays of death and destruction.

Shintaro Katsu played Zatoichi in 26 movies and made the role his career trademark.

The making of this new version is almost as interesting as the film itself.

Katsu, the original Zatoichi, was a convivial bon vivant who was friends with Chieko Saito, the entrepreneurial owner of a number of popular strip clubs in Japan (she began her empire in the post-war years). After Katsu’s death in 1999, Saito approached Kitano about bringing the Zatoichi story back to life.

Ironically, the offer came at the right time. Kitano may be practically a superstar in the minds of western film critics for such movies as “Hana-bi,” “Brother” and “Kikujiro,” but his films aren’t actually box office successes in his own country. This one, partly because of the subject and beloved character, and because Kitano (who started his career as a comedic straight man) brings an unerring sense of humor to the often seriously bloody proceedings.

Like all of the Zatoichi series, the new version follows the title character as he saves a town by killing off an evil gang boss and hi minions with his lightning-fast swordsmanship. In his effort, he’s helped by two wandering geishas who turn out to be a brother and sister trying to avenge their parents’ murder. Kitano plops in some silly and some intriguing site gags that keep the film in a contemporary framework – especially his bleached blonde locks (which he says in interviews he had done before starting the movie and decided to keep) and the surreal, hip-hop stepping dance number at the end.

So the movie’s both charmingly traditional in its form and genre, and modern in its execution. And, it’s Kitano’s biggest hit ever in Japan, as well as an award-winner at various western film festivals.

At this rate, can it be long before someone in Hollywood puts swords and six-guns together in a cowboy-samurai combo? (Hint: it’s happened before, in the 1971 movie starring Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune, “Red Sun.”

Uma Thurman rocks as a modern-day samurai/cowgirl in both voluymes of the “Kill Bill” films.

When I was a kid in Japan, I played samurai, although I also had a cowboy outfit. But when my family moved to the States, of course I only played cowboy, pretending to be James West in “The Wild Wild West” or acting out plots from “Bonanza” and “The Big Valley” (and also war, thanks to TV shows like “Combat,” “Hogan’s Heroes” and “McHale’s Navy”).

It never occurred to me back then that there were only Asian parts I could play in “cowboy” games: Fuji the POW from McHale’s Navy and Hop Sing, the cook from “Bonanza.” So I always played the Indian, of course, and got shot and killed.

It was much more equitable in my playtime in Japan, when I could be a cool ninja warrior and sneak up on my opponents and slash their throats, or be the indestructible samurai in a big battle, slaying everyone around me. Back then, nobody was taller than anybody else (I was always the short one playing cowboy in the States), and we all took turns playing a good guy and then the bad guy. Instead of the gruff, rough and fabulously revered John Wayne, we all imagined ourselves as the gruff, rough and fabulously revered Toshiro Mifune.

There was no denying the romantic allure of dressing up in a kimono and sliding a plastic katana (sword) and its plastic sheath into my waistband. For one Hallowe’en (yes, we celebrated Hallowe’en in Japan, at least on the military bases back then – it’s a popular holiday throughout the country nowadays), I even wore a complete samurai outfit, including a baldcap with the tuft of hair that samurai wore back in the day. I was a happy kid that night, as I collected my candy!

Many Japanese Americans who grew up in stateside communities spent weekends going to a local movie house (in Denver it was the Buddhist Temple at what is now Sakura Square) and watched chambara movies cranked out by Japan’s tireless studios.

I recall watching a lot of black-and-white samurai films on TV in Japan when we lived there, but lost track once we moved to the U.S. Besides, I got swept up in watching “Batman” and “Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

As an adult, I haven’t watched a lot of Japanese samurai movies, but in recent years I’ve sought out the classics, among them “Seven Samurai,” “Yojimbo,” “Rashomon” and now the “Zatoichi” series. Even back when they didn’t show the spurting blood and gore of today’s films (one of my favorite flashes is in the 1989 “Zatoichi,” when Shintaro Katsu slices a bad guy’s face and a nose flies off and sticks to the wall), the movies were intense, dramatic and action-packed.

That’s why I’ve liked Tarantino’s take on the genre – he takes the same dynamic approach, like Kitano adds a dollop of humor and then lets the blood spurt.

Who needs rifles, pistols and holsters, anyway?

Click here to order the original Zatoichi films or here to order “Kill Bill Vol. 1” and here for “Kill Bill Vol. 2” from