Kenji Misumi | 87 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese
A more literal translation of the 12th Zatoichi movie’s title would be something like Zatoichi’s Trip to Hell. I can see why they changed it, though, because that seems a bit melodramatic: this is far from Ichi’s darkest, or most personally-threatening, adventure. Choosing to focus on the chess expert in the English-language title in some ways feels a little misleading — there’s a lot of other stuff going on in the story here — but, when it comes down to it, he is the film’s defining character.
Said chess master is Jumonji (Mikio Narita), a samurai Ichi bumps into on a sea voyage. Although they have mutual respect for each others’ skills and end up travelling together, it’s clear they have some differences in their moral codes. Meanwhile, Ichi is being pursued by a group of men — well, when isn’t he? A fight results in the injury of a little girl, and Ichi insists on helping her and her aunt, Otane (Kaneko Iwasaki). The four travel to a spa, where they encounter a young lord hunting for the man who killed his father.
After a lot of time spent moving pieces into place (appropriate for a chess-themed story, I suppose), the film almost takes a swerve into murder mystery territory — except it’s less of a whodunnit (we know that pretty quickly), more of a whydunnit, as both victim and perpetrator are people Ichi is on good terms with. And that’s only the half of it, because there’s more to Otane than meets the eye, too.
The way all this plays out is a change of pace for the series. There’s still a peppering of the usual elements (Ichi-vs-hordes fight scenes; comical gambling bits where Ichi one-ups those who underestimate him), but around that it’s kind of slower, more emotional (there’s a very effective scene where Ichi recalls another Otane, his love interest from several of the early movies), and all gets a bit melancholic — it seems jovial enough at first, but that undercurrent of sadness is waiting to pounce. It also shows Ichi as more fallible than usual, with some of his usual tricks failing (he actually loses a dice game; later, he drops something important during a fight and has to fumble around on the ground), and the finale pits him against an adversary and dilemma the likes of which he hasn’t faced since perhaps even the first movie.
It also reminds a little of the fourth film, Zatoichi the Fugitive — which is appropriate, as a key sequence here contains a callback to the events of that movie. But the actual similarity comes in its effectiveness: when it’s working, it’s among the finest material in the whole series. Specific great sequences include the discovery of a murder in the rain, which is intensely atmospheric, while another where violence almost erupts between two friends plays out in complete silence and is all the more tense because of it. However, the consistency isn’t quite there across the whole film for me to count it among the series’ very best. There are a few too many major elements introduced late in the game, and, in balance to that, too much early stuff that doesn’t quite go where it needs to in order to feel justified. Perhaps this is a side effect of them churning out so many of these movies every year: with a couple more rounds of polishing to the screenplay, to streamline and coalesce all the plots appropriately, it might’ve been top drawer.
But I don’t want to be too harsh. Even if Chess Expert doesn’t thrill as much as some of the other movies, nor differ from the formula as thoroughly as some others, it does have its own charms for those prepared to indulge a somewhat more contemplative and chewy Ichi tale. Director Kenji Misumi previously helmed the original Tale of Zatoichi and Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, which are (best as I can ascertain) commonly regarded as being among the top two Zatoichi films. Many a fan would rank Chess Expert in close proximity to them. For me, it doesn’t crack the very top tier of Ichi flicks, but is still an above-average adventure for everyone’s favourite blind masseur swordmaster.
Announced late last month, Criterion are bringing their fabulous Blu-ray box set of the Zatoichi series to the UK in November.