The action hero played by internationally acclaimed writer/director Takeshi Kitano in Zatoichi - blind loner by day, martial arts tail-whupper by night - has been a box-office draw for decades. Set in Japan in the 19th century, the original Zatoichi film series ran from 1962 to 1989 and centred on its hero, a sightless swordsman masquerading as an itinerant masseur, as he wandered the countryside, dispatching gangsters on behalf of terrorized townspeople. To create his updated vision of Zatoichi, Kitano reteamed with two frequent collaborators: cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima and lighting designer Hitoshi Takaya.

Traditionally, Japanese films split the job of director of photography in two: a cinematographer or chief cameraman is responsible for setting the frame, and a lighting director or designer independently lights the compositions set by the cameraman. As with Western crews, the details of workflow vary from show to show, but Takaya says his is "a fairly equal collaboration" with Yanagishima. When working on Kitano?s films, Takaya usually begins by lighting each scene or location for 360-degree coverage in order to give Yanagishima maximum flexibility in choosing compositions. This strategy also helps support Kitano?s famously spontaneous shooting style, which Takaya describes as "abnormally fast."

Kitano?s production have to be speedy because the director, a ubiquitous fixture in Japanese entertainment, is always juggling many projects at once. "He still hosts six or seven weekly television shows, " Yanagishima explains, "which necessitates planning a production in a very irregular manner. He has one week of film shooting followed by one week of recording for TV; during his ?TV week? we can prepare for the next shooting week and Kitano can edit footage from the last shooting week.

"This unique scheduling enables us to make films in a very organic and improvisational way, " Takaya continues. "[The ?TV week?] gives him the time and space to sort out his vision and get clearer ideas of what to shoot the following week, and it gives us time to prepare for the spontaneous changes he makes."

Zatoichi underwent a significant evolution during its four-month preproduction period. The director solicited script input from his key crew members throughout scouting and testing - "The whole process is really like a jam session between jazz musicians, " says Yanagishima - and changed his mind on several key issues. "Early in prep, he wanted the film to be very colorful, " Takaya recalls. "But as we proceeded, he said, ?this film should be almost blank-and-white.?"

Yanigishima created Zatoichi?s pale color palette by applying a skip-bleach process to the film?s internegative at Tokyo Laboratory. (He shot the picture on Kodak Vision2 500T 5218 and EXR 50D 5245.) He and Kitano had never used the technique before, and the cameraman conducted extensive tests throughout preproduction, referencing how Janusz Kaminski, ASC and Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC had used the process and reading AC?s own examination of the technique (see "Soup du Jour, " AC Nov. ?98). He and Kitano felt that an earthy, near-monochrome look would match the distinctive visual traditions established by other Japanese period pictures. "Also, " Yanagishima adds, "it would help balance out the goriness of splattering blood!"

Yanagishima absorbed plenty of period-film experience during his early career as a camera assistant at Toshiro Mifune?s production company, and he brought those lessons to bear on Zatoichi. "When you shoot Japanese period pieces, you always need to keep in mind the predispositions of traditional Japanese buildings and interior decorations," he explains. "They basically consists of vertical and lateral lines and lack diagonal lines and curves; also, the rooms are much smaller [than modern ones]. You need to come up with compositions where the vertical and lateral lines do not appear distorted within the limited amount of space."

Yanagishima?s Arriflex package consisted of a 535B and a 435, and he carried a range of Zeiss Superspeed primes and Cooke 5x20 and Angenieux 25-250mm HR zooms, but he restricted his focal lengths for most scenes to 35mm or 50mm. He finds that these lengths "are suitable [for maintaining] a camera-to-subject distance where the crew and subject feel comfortable, and for capturing subjects with natural perspective."

This also matched Kitano?s preference for "looser framing" within the spherical 1.85:1 aspect ratio. "When I first worked with Kitano on Boiling Point, he said that he wanted each image to be something that could stand on its own as an individual photograph," Yanagishima recalls. "If we shot in CinemaScope, it would either become a picture where the subject is too close or a picture where something unnecessary is visible on either side. I haven?t tried CinemaScope with Kitano yet, but I would like to."

Takaya says he paid little attention to establishing convention while lighting Zatoichi. "It was my first period piece, but I didn?t try to do it differently than a modern picture, " he says. "Metaphorically speaking, my attitude was to approach this as a science fiction film." But Takaya also wanted to diverge from the hard, artificial style of his last outing with Kitano, Dolls. He settled on a pale, soft look for day scenes and an "almost visible darkness" for nights, which he created with extensive use of "balloon-like" 4K HMI Goya Domes and Kino Flos.

Yanagishima notes that Zatoichi?s camera movements inverts the usual conventions for action and dialogue scenes. For action setpieces, the frame remains relatively stationary, whereas for talking-head scenes that might ordinarily be conveyed in static close-ups or two-shots, the camera sways back and forth in a deliberately stylized fashion. "We had more [cutting] and moving-camera shots in Zatoichi than we did in Kitano?s earlier films," the cameraman notes. "I think that [those techniques] contribute to [a sense of] instability, which gives the viewers the feeling that something is about to happen."

Not surprisingly, Zatoichi pays homage to the samurai epics of Akira Kurosawa. One action scene in particular, in which the blind swordsman squares off against an armed mob in a rainstorm, was directly inspired by the Japanese master. "The ways Kurosawa used the rain and the effect it gave to the images were very impressive," says Yanagishima, "and I heard some interesting stories about the difficulties involving in shooting those scenes from my seniors at Mifune." Kitano?s intriguing twist on the concept was to stage his "rainstorm" in the middle of a sunny afternoon "to get a glittering look with strong sunbeams backlighting the hard rain." Takaya enhanced the scene?s natural contrast with 18K clear-lens HMIs, and Yanagishima covered the action with both the 535B and 425; he overcranked the 435 at 72 fps, and Kitano applied a "fast-motion" effect to the footage in post, giving it a strobing effect similar to that achieved by filming with a narrow shutter angle.

If Kurosawa spirit was watching, he may have blessed the rest of the shoot with some crucial good luck. Yanagishima recalls shooting the tapdancing finale, which involved choreographing some 60 dancers and four cameras in an ancient shrine in one day: "Once the filming began, the process went much more smoothly than I expected - it only took us four hours! We later learned that Kurosawa had shot at the entrance pass of the same shrine." Adds Takaya, "Apparently, the location managers had scouted all over the place looking for a very ancient-looking shrine, and that was the hundredth one they visited."

By John Pavius (American Cinematographer, June 2004 Volume 85 No. 6 page 14, 16 and 17). All rights are reserved by John Pavlus and "American Cinematographer". The article is reproduced by with the kind permission by Stephen Pizzello (courtesy of American Cinematographer magazine).