Zatoichi and the Chess Expert is one of the better Zatoichi films of the first half of the series. If not for the muddy second act, this, the 12th film in the series, would rank at the top of the heap. Director Kenji Misumi, who was also the director of the very first Zatoichi film, pulls out all the stops to create a visually compelling presentation. Unfortunately, the script isn’t as strong as the visuals.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s an awful lot to like here. It just never gels into a cohesive whole. Our old friend Ichi is in trouble again but this time he isn’t making matters any better for himself. I’m not sure if this is tied to Misumi’s idea of Ichi or not, but in his Z films, Ichi is always more mischievous. In this one he’s practically asking to get the crap beat out of him. He’s back to his con man tricks, fooling gamblers into parting with their cash and escaping by laying a big guilt trip on them because he’s blind. It doesn’t happen very often, but Ichi isn’t above exploiting pity over his condition if it gets him what he wants. That, to me, diminishes the character whenever it happens. I thought we were past that by this point in the series, but apparently Misumi disagreed.
The plot is packed full of characters looking for and trying to kill one another that by midway through you might be looking for a scorecard just so you can keep track. It’s not terribly complex but the sheer number of overlapping revenge plots and attempts at subterfuge makes the middle act a bit of a mess. The best plot points involve a travelling woman and a little girl who ends up getting tetanus because of an unexpected swordfight between Ichi and Banya clan members. As is often the case in these films, the scenes that feature Ichi and the child are priceless. I’d have gladly given up an extra subplot for more screen time for them.
Equally compelling is the ronin chess expert, Tadaso Jumonji. He’s a very likable, though flawed, companion for Ichi so it’s fairly certain that he won’t live to see the next movie. It’s too bad because Jumon is an interesting character who I’d have loved to see again. Alas it isn’t to be.
The guardian of the little girl falls for Ichi and we’re actually allowed to see how she becomes enamored of the blind masseuse. In most of the films, the love interest is a little farfetched, and it is here as well, but it also lends a melancholy twist to this film that helps move the plot along. Rather than deviating from the formula, this film tunes the formulaic elements to a perfect pitch.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the look of this picture is unparalleled in the series. The shrine and the village are wonderful locations, as is the ship Ichi boards at the beginning of the film. The cinematography is crisp and clear with bright colors and rich detail, even on the relatively poor DVD transfer. Shot selection is impressive and it’s supported by restrained camera work.
Performances are all crystal clear, with Shintaro Katsu leading the way. Mikio Narita, the actor portraying Jumonji, gives Katsu a run for his money and his understated, charismatic performance is important to the success of the story. The little girl hardly turns in an award winning performance, but she hits her marks and delivers her lines in ways that emphasize her charm as well.
The action often takes a backseat to the plot but there are several wonderful fight sequences. The quality of the camera work alone would have insured that these are fun to watch, but there’s always character in a Zatoichi fight. Modern filmmakers like Michael Bay could learn a lot from watching these films. A fight is meaningless if it’s simply a technical exercise.
As a whole, the film plays like Misumi’s attempt at remaking The Tale of Zatoichi. Surely this one had a larger budget and was also in color so the opportunity was ripe for the picking. That could explain why so many plot elements got crammed into 90 minutes but that’s just conjecture. This is a top notch Zatoichi film and comes highly recommended despite the minor flaws of its script.