Review: Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (1964)

The sixth of Zatoichi films, 1964’s Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, is a real leap forward for the series. From the moment the opening credits begin, with their Bond-esque images of Ichi dispatching scores of attackers in super-cool style, I knew this wasn’t to be just another film in the series.

This time around, Zatoichi is in the middle of a dispute between a group of farmers and their scheming overlords. The villagers have finally scraped together their large tax payment only to have the titular chest of gold stolen while in transit.  At first, Ichi is a suspect, but he vows to help the farmers find their missing money. A Yakuza boss named Chuji has been kind to the villagers in the past but has fallen on hard times. Ichi finds him and convinces him to help the villagers once again by joining his fight to right this wrong.

Unlike some Zatoichi films, the relationships here are clearly defined despite the variety of factions at work and the double-crosses in play. The plot is a real tangle of threads but Director Kazuo Ikehiro always keeps each one clear. With this release, he may very well have forged the visual style that just about every anime would use for the next fifty years. There are smash zooms, whip pans, and just about every expressionistic camera trick in the book. It’s very much ahead of its time.

Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa worked previously with Akira Kurosawa on such seminal works as Yojimbo and Rashomon. That work is solid, but it’s restrained most of the time. With Chest of Gold, he really seems to have set out to stretch his artistic legs. What’s truly great about this influx of visual style is that it’s all used to serve the story.

Shintaro Katsu is at his best as Ichi, creating a vulnerable and nuanced performance as the blind masseur. Among a noteworthy cast of Daiei regulars, Tomisaburo Wakayama appears here as the mercenary ronin Jushiro. Most will recognize Wakayama as the lead in the Lone Wolf and Cub films, but he’s also Shintaro Katsu’s older brother.

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold is one of the best films that the series has to offer.  The film is very highly recommended, but the blu ray transfer from Criterion is not. The transfer is muddy and dark. The print used appears to have gotten no cleanup whatsoever. It’s disappointing when such a high-profile release gets so little attention from a company whose reputation hinges on their restoration work. Still, it’s the best version we currently have.

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