Zatoichi (June 9/04)
It's no wonder that Zatoichi won the audience award at the 2003 Toronto Film Festival, as the movie ends on an incredibly high note. Writer/director/star Takeshi "Beat" Kitano concludes the film in such a way that one almost forgets the tedium that came before it (almost, but not quite).
The first half hour proves to be the film's most effective, as Kitano does a wonderful job of establishing the world his titular character inhabits. Set in ancient Japan, the movie opens with Zatoichi (Kitano, natch) arriving at a small village that's being ruled over by a deadly gang. Being the skilled swordsman he is - a blind one, no less - Zatoichi takes it upon himself to combat the tyrannical forces in town, along with the help of several fed-up citizens.
Kitano's directorial style is deliberate and contemplative, which initially serves the film well. The plight of the village is efficiently established with a montage set to Keiichi Suzuki's colorful score (which quickly proves to be one of the movie's strongest assets). Kitano takes his time in developing the flavor of this small town, a strategy that works for a while but eventually becomes tedious.
Kitano goes overboard with the relaxed pace, and introduces several needless plot strands - including Zatoichi's wacky buddy who tries to emulate his success at gambling and two siblings looking to avenge the murder of their parents. To a certain extent, all the backstory on these various characters is interesting - but Kitano takes things way too far, and completely ignores Zatoichi for long stretches of the movie (it's almost a surprise when he makes a re-appearance after a particularly long absence).
Things pick up in a big way towards the end, with a long battle between Zatoichi and an army of soldiers - but it's simply not enough to make us forget everything that preceeded it.