Paths of Glory: leading viewers on a path about the place of honour, duty, truth and justice in war

Stanley Kubrick, “Paths of Glory” (1957)

A simply and tightly made film with a powerful message about honour, duty and how war degrades men and masculinity, “Paths of Glory” is a fine example of how Kubrick was hitting his stride as a director. The film was the start of a fruitful relationship with lead actor Kirk Douglas who would go on to appear in another Kubrick film (“Spartacus”). Based on a novel which itself was based on a mutiny by the French army during World War I, the film revolves around a scheme cooked up by two senior French generals Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and the professionally ambitious Mireau (George Macready) to throw a division of soldiers at a German-defended position known as the Ant Hill. Initially Mireau protests at the hare-brained idea but when Broulard mentions that success in taking the Ant Hill would lead to a promotion for Mireau, the other man quickly changes his mind.

Mireau informs Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) of the attack that Dax’s men will have to carry out and despite Dax’s protests at the sheer lunacy of the idea, Mireau dumps the responsibility for planning the details of the attack onto his subordinate. In the meantime, a night-time scouting mission to ascertain the chances of success in attacking the Ant Hill results in tragedy when the scout is killed by a grenade lobbed by his superior: the corporal (Ray Meeker) accompanying the scout finds his body and confronts the superior who denies any wrongdoing.

Next day the attack on Ant Hill takes place and as expected by Dax, ends disastrously with huge numbers of casualties. Meanwhile Mireau orders his artillery to fire on B Company when those soldiers refuse to participate in the suicide mission. After the attack, Mireau orders a court martial of 100 soldiers for cowardice but Broulard convinces him to reduce the number to three men selected at random. Of the men selected for court martial, one of them is the second scout. While Colonel Dax – a criminal lawyer in civilian life – acts as defence lawyer in the kangaroo court, the three men are swiftly judged guilty and sentenced to face a firing squad.

The action is brisk, the plot uncompromising and the acting is crisp and meets the challenge of the plot and the issues it poses about how corrupt generals play with the lives of soldiers and about the place of honour and integrity during war. There is some over-acting from actors playing minor characters but the context in which this occurs can be justified: knowing that you’re about to meet your maker much sooner than you realise does concentrate the mind and the emotions too well. In this world of ongoing grinding trench warfare there is no place for compassion, truth or justice. Mireau does get his comeuppance but only because of Broulard’s further manipulations, not because he gets caught out for having ordered his artillery to kill his own men. The hellishness and brutality of war are highlighted by Kubrick’s masterful use of tracking shots which when used in the trenches also convey a strong sense of paranoia and fear. Dax and his men are treated as no more than machines; at the end of the film, they are all called back to the front, presumably to carry out yet another foolhardy mission as directed by remote generals.

The film’s conclusion highlights the common humanity of both the French and their German enemy but at the same time underlines the role of the foot soldier as cannon fodder.

 

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 8: Emily Ruins Adam): featuring a good demolition job on IQ tests

Laura Murphy, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 8: Emily Ruins Adam)” (2017)

At long last, for those who always wanted to get their back on comedian Adam Conover for gatecrashing everyone’s parties to tell people that everything they thought they knew was right about everyday facts is actually wrong … here comes an episode of “Adam Ruins Everything” in which one of Adam’s past companions Emily sets about demolishing IQ tests and a few investigations from previous episodes that the TV show either got wrong or didn’t make clear to viewers. The segment on IQ testing and how IQ tests have been abused by US federal government agencies in often sinister ways – for example, to select people judged mentally defective or racially inferior for sterilisation as part of a wider but hidden eugenics program – is the most interesting part of the episode. The segments that follow are less informative and more slapstick as Emily and Adam overdo their comedy routine, particularly in the boxing ring segment where Emily tells Adam that simply telling people that what they believe is right is actually wrong isn’t enough to change their minds … what also should be done is to replace the incorrect narrative with a narrative that is as close to the truth as possible.

Even so, the episode as a whole is worthwhile mainly to show that even a television show with the resources to hire the best experts and to do thorough research doesn’t always get its facts right, or needs to do more work to convince or persuade viewers that its viewpoint is more valid than others. It’s a reminder that we should be humble about what we know or think we know, and there are going to be times when we ourselves need to review our own narratives about how the world works or what makes it go round.

The segment on IQ tests is very informative though perhaps it does not go deeply enough to encompass a whole sordid history of how the US government over past decades targeted racial minorities and immigrants and shunted them into the lowest socio-economic layers by subjecting them to biased intelligence testing, or subjected them to unethical medical experiments and sterilisation programs. That awaits a much fuller treatment by a television program with even more resources and access to experts and historians.

What the Media Won’t Tell You about Syria: concentrating on one part of Syria and its geopolitical and economic importance gives way to an oil blowout

ReallyGraceful, “What the Media Won’t Tell You about Syria” (2017)

Among other news and facts that the Western mainstream news media ignores about Syria and its war against terrorists and their foreign backers that has raged since 2011, is one juicy piece about the Golan Heights which have been contested territory between Syria and Israel since 1967 when the Israelis seized a large part of that region from Damascus: in 2013, a subsidiary of Genie Energy, an energy company based in Newark, New Jersey, secretly acquired a licence from an Israeli court to drill for oil and natural gas in an area covering half the Golan Heights. Now that fact alone might not seem important in the context of the Syrian War, were it not for who sits on the Board of Directors of Genie Energy: gosh, the directors include US media mogul Rupert Murdoch, former US vice-president Richard Cheney and former CIA head James Woolsey. Could the fact that those luminaries happen to be Genie Energy directors partly explain the slanted Western media reporting on the Syrian War which repeatedly paints the Syrian government as a brutal, repressive dictatorship that attacks its own people with chemical weapons or arrests them by the hundreds if not by the thousands and throws them into the supposedly notorious Saydnaya Prison to be tortured, killed and cremated?

Narrator Grace at ReallyGraceful can’t cover every lie and propaganda smear about Syria and its government so she sensibly concentrates on the Golan Heights and the hydrocarbon wealth there that attracted the attention of Israel and Genie Energy initially. She notes that Israel’s action in awarding a drilling licence to Genie Energy is clearly illegal under international law. She points out also that the war in Syria and the chaos there benefit Israeli interests and Western corporate energy interests: the war drives out refugees from their lands which can be seized by companies of the countries waging war in Syria. Grace also fingers Rex Tillerson, US State Secretary under US President Donald Trump, as having an interest in shutting out Syria and its allies Russia and Iran out of global collective actions against ISIS in Syria: Tillerson’s background is as a former executive of energy giant Exxon Mobil and might greatly influence the kinds of decisions he makes, especially in a context where Qatar and Iran are rivals to build natural gas pipelines across land from the Persian Gulf to the eastern Mediterranean – land that also includes a sizeable chunk of Syria.

In just seven minutes, Grace elegantly and languidly provides more information about Western energy and geopolitical interests in Syria than the Western news media has so far done. The collage of newsreel stills and photographs of Murdoch and others is put together well and visually arresting but the voice-over narration actually stands on its own very well. Grace’s conversational style may be very rambling and it hardly pauses for breath but at the same time it feels very intimate. The film can be seen at this link.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 6: Adam Ruins What We Learned In School): throwing Christopher Columbus and King Tut under the Magic School Bus

Amy Winfrey, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 6: Adam Ruins What We Learned In School)” (2017)

In this completely animated episode, Adam Conover joins a teacher, her students and the Magic School Bus to dispel popular misconceptions about Christopher Columbus and the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen and to demonstrate that grammar rules are for the most part irrelevant and serving mainly as guides to facilitate communication between and across sub-cultures. Aimed at a teenage audience, the episode is streamlined into treating just three topics, one after the other, and compared to other “Adam Ruins Everything” episodes isn’t quite so hyperactive.

In the first part of the episode, Christopher Columbus is revealed as a far from benevolent character who “discovered” America – indeed he never even went near the mainland United States but landed instead on the territory of what’s now the Dominican Republic. There, believing he had reached India, he named the native Taino people Indians. Even then, Columbus didn’t show much respect for his hosts but rather, over several trips between the Caribbean and Spain, proceeded to rob the Taino of their lands and enslave them. The indigenous population dropped in numbers alarmingly and eventually their Spanish colonial masters had to rely on the African slave trade for labourers to do their dirty work. The present-day adulation of Columbus stems from a deliberate public relations campaign cooked up in the late 19th century / early 20th century at a time when Italian immigration into the US was high; being of Italian descent himself, Columbus was adopted by American federal and state governments as a representative of Italian-American potential and to ease tensions between the immigrants and native-born Anglo-Americans.

The pharaoh Tutankhamen is shown to be significant mainly because his tomb, hidden in the Valley of Kings rather than in a lone-standing pyramid, was overlooked by grave robbers over hundreds of centuries; thus in 1922 when a British expedition came across his tomb, it was intact and filled with thousands of valuable treasures. The pharaoh in real life didn’t really have a chance to enjoy all that wealth: ascending to the throne as a 9-year-old boy, he had to take advice from adult viziers and the high priests of the ancient Egyptian religion. His reign was very short as well – he died at the age of 19 years. No wonder that compared to other pharaohs, Tutankhamen’s life was so unremarkable.

The last sliver of this episode demolishes the notion that grammar rules play an important role in safeguarding the English language from improper use and argues that English is a continually changing and complex language. Grammar rules are shown to be illogical and inconsistent – we say “myself”, “yourself”, “ourselves”, so why not “hisself” and “theirselves”? All that grammar rules do is ease communication and interaction among communities that may speak and use English in different ways and who need common ground in using English when their members meet and interact.

For many viewers, this episode will be more enjoyable than others where live action Adam is in danger of parodying himself. The pace is more leisurely and less hyperactive, and the animation is very well done with a homely look. I wish there were more such animated episodes of this series.

What the Media Won’t Tell You About North Korea: packing punches galore in 10 minutes about US designs on North Korea

ReallyGraceful,”What the Media Won’t Tell You About North Korea” (2017)

ReallyGraceful is quickly becoming a useful source of alternative information on topics the Western mainstream news media refuse to touch – like the real reasons that the US is threatening North Korea with invasion and war, and why North Korea seems to act in such a paranoid way vis-a-vis the US and South Korea. Narrator Grace tunnels back into the 20th century to show viewers that the Korean peninsula was for the first 40 years of that period a colony of Japan – and like most colonies, once its overlord was vanquished in World War II, Korea was up for grabs by the victors. The peninsula became divided into a Communist north and a US-dominated capitalist south, and a vicious war soon followed. The Korean War claimed over a million lives in North Korea – in those days, that was nearly 20% of the country’s population – and every city including the capital Pyongyang was razed to the ground. Grace disabuses her audiences of the view (which she admits she also once held) that the war was a result of the conflict of ideologies: the real reason for the war was geopolitical – the Korean peninsula represented (and still does represent) a beach-head for the US to penetrate and eventually undermine China and the Soviet Union in their far frontier regions.

This video isn’t so much about North Korea as it is about the threat its neighbours in China and the Russian Federation pose to the US domination of the world through the US dollar as the international reserve currency and the currency in which oil is sold and bought. The fact that Russia and China are moving away from trade in US dollars threatens US global financial and economic leadership, with potential dire consequences for the American economy and the wealth of American elites: a situation Washington will not tolerate. On top of that comes news that North Korea is sitting on a treasure trove of rare earth minerals worth trillions of dollars and may have the largest deposit of particular rare earths, and if there’s a possibility of killing two birds (attacking China through attacking North Korea, and claiming North Korea’s mineral wealth) with the one stone, the US will not hesitate to seize it.

As for North Korea itself, Grace doesn’t have much to say about the country that’s not been said before: there’s not a great deal about the ruling Kim family (other than current leader Kim Jong-un’s friendship with basketball celebrity Dennis Rodman) or the political and economic context of the unstable and uncertain 1990s after the downfall of the Soviet Union that led North Korea to invest in developing a nuclear bomb that would deter US-South Korean invasion. After seeing countries like Iraq and Libya attempt to appease the West, only to suffer invasion and the overthrow of their leaders (and those leaders’ abject deaths), North Korea’s leaders decided to take no chances with their country’s future. Having a nuclear bomb makes eminent sense: not only does that policy have a deterrent effect, it also makes possible space for diplomacy, and is better use of scarce money than equipping an army made up of conscripted farm labour with weapons that would be useless against US and South Korean fire-power.

Grace could have mentioned the fact that every year the US and South Korea hold large military exercises in which tens of thousands of soldiers participate – in 2016, some 15,000 US soldiers and 290,000 South Korean soldiers participated in exercises that included beach invasions and assassinating North Korean leaders – and which spook the North Korean leadership. Any sane country, no matter how wealthy or technologically advanced its military is, would be paranoid at seeing two strong enemies practising invasion strategies and assassination tactics in military drills every year.

As it is though, the video is very informative and packs a lot of information and some eye-opening visual montages in its 10-minute running time.

How Haiti Became the Epicenter of Crime Through Exploitation of Death and Destruction: quick history lesson and documentary on Western exploitation of Haiti

ReallyGraceful, “How Haiti Became the Epicenter of Crime Through Exploitation of Death and Destruction” (1 April 2017)

For a quick lesson on how Haiti came to be one of the poorest and most exploited countries in the Western Hemisphere since its founding in the early 1800s after slaves there revolted against their French colonial slave-masters. For that, France imposed a huge reparations bill on independent Haiti which the country has had to pay off for at least 150 years. While the collage of video news reels is important and informative, the narrative supplied by ReallyGraceful’s head honcho Grace is much more so – in her laid-back southern US accent, Grace informs us that Haiti was at the mercy of the Rothschild’s Bank for much of the 19th century, German business during the early years of the 20th century and then for the rest of that century the United States whose troops occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. Grace brings us up to the present day in a couple of minutes with the January 2010 earthquake after quickly glossing over the period of the Duvalier father-and-son dictatorship.

The rest of the short video investigates the links between US politicians and ex-politicians, the CIA and its private contractor supplier DynCorp on the one hand, the Clinton Foundation and the American Red Cross on the one hand, and on the other hand the corruption, the rampant crime and in particular child and organ trafficking in Haiti. Israel is also cited as being active in trafficking organs – the country happens to be prominent in medical tourism so demand for fresh organs for transplant would be strong there. The video’s pace is constant and at times probably a little too fast for viewers not familiar with Haitian politics and the current situation there. There’s a lot to take in, not to mention a lot of name-dropping – and the names of various members of the Bush political family dynasty, the Clintons and their friends and allies, among others are repeated quite a bit – so viewers may need to watch this video a few times to digest its most salient points.

I wish Grace had been a little bit slower and maybe not quite so machine-like in her delivery, with a few pauses here and there, though her blase tone does an excellent job of highlighting the depth of the exploitation of Haiti by US political elites and agencies.

The video can be viewed on Youtube at this link or on ReallyGraceful‘s Youtube channel.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 7: Adam Ruins College): how financially naive young adults end up in the grip of neoliberal economic ideology

Paul Briganti, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 7: Adam Ruins College)” (2017)

Aiming squarely at its target audience of US high school students and undergrads, this episode is nevertheless of interest to foreigners who coasted through undergraduate university and college courtesy of government-funded grants or scholarships, or even enjoyed free tuition, and might be mystified as to how and why Americans these days land themselves in life-long debt because of … student loans! Adam Conover takes prospective college student Cole (Lukas Gage) and the audience through what almost amounts to a labyrinth of why going to college these days is so necessary – because most jobs in the future will demand a college degree – yet how going to college can become an unnecessary financial millstone around young people’s necks.

Initially Cole thinks he can be like Bill Gates and become a drop-out tech billionaire. Not so fast, Adam points out – most people who have only a high school diploma will eventually end up, at every stage of their career, earning less than someone with a college degree. Quickly convinced by Adam’s argument, Cole decides to read the US News & World Report’s college rankings guide on what college to choose – only for Adam to explain how the guide is manipulated by college administrators and ultimately can’t advise on the best colleges to attend with respect to the quality of education offered. Moving into a noisy student party, Adam and Cole shout their way through a quick history of lending to college students: initially government funded and regulated, the institution known as Sallie Mae was privatised in the 1990s and almost immediately began to exploit naive 18-year-olds for profit in much the same way that banks began pushing subprime mortgages onto people with suspect credit histories who could not pay off their housing loans.

In spite of the happy atmosphere and Cole’s kooky, gullible nature, the episode does deliver a very grim message: to get ahead in life, people need college degrees but may risk acquiring a huge debt that only could take a life-time to pay off but which could also affect their eligibility for future social welfare, not to mention limiting their choices as to work, having shelter and even planning a family. Happily Adam suggests to Cole that he should see a financial advisor about the kind of loan that would suit him and that community college or a publicly funded college may be a better option than going to an expensive Ivy League university.

The action seems a lot more histrionic and the whackiness has a forced quality about it due to over-acting on Conover and Gage’s part. Oddly there’s none of the animation that enlivens other episodes in the “Adam Ruins Everything” series. As with other episodes I’ve seen of this series, there are no really great revelations that most members of the public, particularly college students and their families, wouldn’t already be familiar with. Still this is a very entertaining show that moves briskly and which ends on an upbeat note.

Ultimately though the show can only go so far as to demonstrate that privatising institutions that offer student loans can open the door to predatory profiteering on financially naive people, and cannot draw parallels between the nation-wide student loan manipulation rort and similar bubbles such as the subprime mortgage bubble that killed off Lehmann Brothers in 2008 and ushered in the Great Recession. Once again, neoliberal capitalism rears its ugly head to prey on the vulnerable.

 

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 5: Adam Ruins Art): the hermetic world of fine art is dashed to pieces by loudmouth comic

Matthew Pollock, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 5: Adam Ruins Art)” (2017)

In this episode, Adam swipes the world of fine art, art galleries and art auctions by demonstrating that what is currently considered great art wasn’t necessarily so at the time it was made, and that the current fine art market in which certain artworks worth millions can exchange ownership is nothing more than a tax scam by which wealthy people can gain tax concessions by gifting or donating paintings. The episode gets off to a grand start by examining the worth ofLeonardo da Vinci’s famous “Mona Lisa” painting and how it originally became ubiquitous: someone stole the painting from the Louvre in 1911 as at the time the painting was considered a minor work and therefore didn’t merit around-the-clock guard. The publicity the painting gained after its theft and later (two years later in fact) return was enough to cement it in the public mind and its status rose accordingly.

With art student Persephone (Celesta de Astis) as his Frida Kahlo clone companion, Adam takes a grand tour of history and shows Persephone (and viewers) that originality in art is over-rated and what really matters is how artists adapt familiar themes, ideas and other people’s work and mould them into something different. He reveals that famous Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo began his career copying ancient Greek and Roman statues and was often able to pass his copies off as the real things. Of course, everyone should know that famous English playwright William Shakespeare took his subject matter for nearly all his plays from other people’s literary works.

The rest of the episode is taken up by Adam’s shredding of the art market world and how the prices of paintings can be manipulated by insiders currying favour with a small clique of critics and buyers to exclude people wanting to join the clique. The result is that artists themselves end up as pawns of the art market and their careers as artists can be made or broken on the whims of people who know the price of everything but the value of nothing as the cliche goes. At this point Persephone despairs, her dreams of becoming a great artist having been dashed into smithereens, and considers going to business school; but Adam tells her she can still create great art if it comes from the heart and represents what she feels as a human being.

Most of what Conover covers about the hermetic world of the art market will be no big surprise for those who know something of its manipulative creepiness but will certainly be eye-opening for Conover’s target youth audience. Even the revelation that the CIA promoted abstract expressionism during the 1950s by sponsoring experimental art shows and gatherings (no matter how much Western publics actually preferred representational art to abstract art) as a way of combating the Soviet Union and its rival socialist realism movement in an artistic Cold War will be familiar to many people. Indeed, there’s not much in this episode that hasn’t been said before except perhaps the revelation about how the world’s most famous portrait actually became famous. What makes this latest report from “Adam Ruins Everything” notable is its colourful use of animation and live action to put its points across and Adam Conover’s own mouthy and comic encyclopaedic style topped with an amazing surf-wave haircut and a loud pink suit.

Les Biches: a coolly elegant and stylish film on obsessive love, the fragility of identity and class tensions

Claude Chabrol, “Les Biches / The Does” (1968)

A beautifully elegant film of stylishness and subtle performances from its lead female characters, “Les Biches” is a psychological study of obsessive love leading to jealousy and derangement and of the nature of identity and its fragility. It’s also a study of class, and how one set of rules exists for the upper class who happily and nonchalantly engage in decadent activities and another exists for the lower classes.

The action seems to take place in a hermetically sealed world where only the upper class swan about freely and anyone else has to be invited in. Wealthy Parisian socialite Frédérique (Stéphane Audran) encounters a struggling street artist called Why (Jacqueline Sassard) and seduces her. The two lovers then drive down to holiday in St Tropez and stay in Frédérique’s villa which is also inhabited by Violeta the cook and two gay male room-mates. Initially Frédérique and Why have a great time as lovers. However a young architect called Paul (Jean-Louis Trintignant) intrudes on the women’s happiness: he and Why are attracted to each other but Frédérique, jealous of the burgeoning romance, seduces Paul instead and makes him her lover. Complications arise when Frédérique realises she really does love Paul and wants to be close to him 24/7, leaving Why in bored limbo. The three try to live together but Frédérique and Paul’s affair arouses intense jealousy in Why. Who will prevail over the other in claiming Paul’s attentions for herself: Frédérique or Why?

The plot is very thin and most of the film’s attractions come from the actors’ own ability to make their characters come alive: in this, Audran does a far better job than the other main actors Sassard and Trintignant. Of the three, Trintignant’s character Paul seems a bit one-dimensional and ineffectual if cautious and dead set on Frédérique for her money. Trintignan’s Paul gives every impression of being manipulated by Frédérique. The burden of carrying the film falls on Audran and Sassard and both play their parts well, with Audran having the edge on Sassard in portraying a vampiric predator who sucks the life and vitality out of both Paul and Why. The hold that Frédérique has over Why is enough to rob the younger woman of her original bohemian street artist identity and replace it with Frédérique’s own glossy but ultimately empty spirit. Eventually (spoiler alert), Why confronts Frédérique and gets rid of the socialite – but at what cost to her own sanity and stability?

The gay freeloaders Robèque and Riais provide much needed comic relief in an otherwise very insular and suffocating film and act as Frédérique’s familiars in much the same as bats might do for Count Dracula. They are also dealt with in much the same way by Frédérique as she deals with Why: when their usefulness comes to an end, the socialite throws them out of the house and sends them back to Paris. As for Why, Frédérique gives the younger woman plenty of clues (which Why fails to pick up) that she is no longer wanted. Such is the difference between someone wealthy like Frédérique who can make and break people, and those of the lower classes who are bedazzled by wealth and influence, and are made and broken accordingly.

Few films on sexual power, the class divide, upper class decadence and the fragility of identity are so subtle and coolly elegant as this one with such a small cast.

Zatoichi: a colourful package of comedy, violence and drama masks an unoriginal plot and characters not always worthy of sympathy

Takeshi Kitano, “Zatoichi” (2003)

Based in part on the television and film series revolving around the adventures of itinerant blind masseur / swordsman Zatoichi in late Tokugawa Japan, Takeshi Kitano’s “Zatoichi” smoothly combines drama, slapstick comedy and extreme violence in equal measures around a not-too-original plot narrative in which a lone wandering martial arts expert comes across a community suffering from poverty, oppression and exploitation by local warlords and their gangs, and sets about freeing the poor from their tyranny. This theme happens to dovetail with Kitano’s own fascination with violence, the underworld and vengeance, so perhaps we should not be surprised that his version of “Zatoichi” emphasises bloody swordplay, the machinations of warlords and their gangs, and extreme revenge. Yet at the same time the film draws audiences into sympathy for vulnerable characters and empathy with their behaviour and motivations.

Zatoichi (Kitano) wanders into an unnamed village caught up in a war between yakuza gangs who demand huge amounts of protection money from the villagers. He finds shelter with O-ume (Michiyo Okusu), a farming widow, and her ne’er-do-well gambler nephew Shinkichi (Guadalcanal Taka) who is often the butt of many jokes in the film. About the same time, two geisha siblings (one of whom is actually a man) seeking revenge for the deaths of their parents and other family members on their family estate ten years ago arrive in the village. Zatoichi, O-ume and Shinkichi befriend these geishas (Daigoro Tachibana and Yuuko Daike) and learn about their tragic history. The geishas eventually discover that the men who murdered their parents are the same yakuza gangsters terrorising the community, and Zatoichi sets about dispatching these men. For the most part, the job is not too difficult – except that the yakuza leader has just hired ronin samurai Gennosuke Hattori (Tadanobu Asano) as his bodyguard. Hattori boasts a mean, almost demonic way with his sword and a showdown between him and Zatoichi seems set to be the film’s pyrotechnic climax.

The film builds slowly and steadily to the inevitable clash of katanas with plenty of diversions along the way. This does mean that audiences need to concentrate quite hard to follow the plot. Kitano spends much time crafting back histories for various characters including Hattori as well as the geisha siblings, touching on touchy subjects such as paedophilia and suggesting that life for ronin samurai and their families could be as hard and oppressive as the lives of lowly peasants. One feels as much for Hattori and his need to help his sickly wife as one does for the geishas, no matter how intensely and darkly their desire for vengeance burns and eats them up. Special attention should be paid to the bartender and his aged assistant father who washes the sake cups and chops the vegetables. Kitano’s own character Zatoichi differs little from the type of characters he usually plays: impassive, stoic, saying very little and giving the impression of harbouring great, often unearthly wisdom and not a few dark secrets.

The violence may be bloody but it is done quickly and efficiently (and maybe a little too artistically and cleanly in a way that screams it was done with computer-based effects) and often it is over before the audience has had time to draw breath.

One feels that Kitano packs so much into this film because the plot is not all that original and very few characters are actually worthy of much sympathy. The cinematography is often very pretty. The film seems made for a Western audience which might explain why some of the dance sequences are so long and why Kitano opted to include a Hollywood-style chorus-line musical extravaganza, complete with tap-dancing, at the end of the film. We do not learn very much about the character of Zatoichi himself, why he is blind (or pretends to be blind) and why he elects to travel alone from one isolated community to the next and to flush out corruption and oppression everywhere he goes. The theme of blindness in its various guises – including the notion that having sight often makes one blind to things that visually blind people would pick up – is not as fully explored and fleshed out as it could have been.

There is a nihilistic aspect to the film as well: some characters die undeserving and tragic deaths; and the geisha siblings are more affected by their desire for vengeance than by their suffering than they are prepared to admit, and how they will cope when the cause of their suffering has been obliterated by others is unclear.

As expected, Zatoichi goes on his way to another oppressed village in a fantasy pre-Meiji Japan and audiences will have had their fill of comedy, tragedy and drama in a colourful and stylised package.