Takeshi "Beat" Kitano, the Japanese actor-director best known in the US for his quirky, ulraviolent gangster movies (Fireworks
) and in the UK (among satellite and cable viewers, at least) for the bizarre It's a Knockout
gameshow Takeshi's Castle, applies his off-kilter sensibility to the samurai genre in The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi
. A blind masseur (Kitano with his hair dyed white) wanders into a small town divided up by rival gangs. Though hunched and shuffling, Zatoichi soon reveals his deadly skills as a swordsman. He befriends a pair of geisha girls with secrets of their own and helps them hunt down the bandits who killed their parents. But one of the gangs has just hired a ronin, a masterless samurai, whose fighting skill may equal the blind swordsman's.
Zatoichi mixes a melodramatic storyline, deadpan comedy, and dazzling, CGI-enhanced swordfights into a supremely entertaining package. In Japan, Zatoichi is a recurring character in popular action movies, but Kitano places his own unique stamp on the series. --Bret Fetzer