Directed by Takeshi Kitano, starring Takeshi Kitano, Tadanobu Asano, Yui Natsukawa, Michiyo Ogusu, Daigoro Tachibana, Yuiko Danke and Gadarukanaru Taka.

The mountains of 19th Century Japan are littered with those who took Zatoichi (Kitano) for granted. He's a wandering blind masseur by trade, but a samurai by calling, his cane doubling as the scabbard for his long sword. Now fate has brought him to a village ruled by fear. Two gangs terrify the locals and are squaring up to each other to decide who'll run the protection rackets.

But Zatoichi isn't the only new arrival. Two geishas (Ogusu, Tachibana) have an old score to settle, while the ronin Hattori (Asano), a samurai without a master, has hired himself out as bodyguard to one of the kingpins. And in a standoff where everyone is watching everyone else's moves, they're all about to learn that the most dangerous man is the one who sees nothing.

Resurrecting the hero of over 25 films and a TV series, Kitano has delivered one of the films of the year, an ultraviolent but uplifting tale of courage and revenge - suddenly 'Kill Bill: Vol 2' doesn't seem like that big a deal. And as with Kitano's other work, it blends slapstick and savagery with a hero you always want to know something more about.

With his trademark bow-legged walk and lop-sided grin, Kitano the actor is magnetic, while behind the lens he paces the story perfectly, balancing character and action and creating a film that's beautiful to look at - even when the hills run red. The CGI-rendered bloodbaths are spectacular - and could lead many to reappraise the pre-Christmas plaudits heaped on Tarantino - but 'Zatoichi' has so much else to offer that even the squeamish should be sitting up the front.

Not many could follow-up multiple decapitations with a musical finale and get away with it. If you're not cheering by the close you'll have plenty of soul searching to do.

Harry Guerin