Zatoichi and the Chess Expert (1965)

aka Zatôichi jigoku-tabi

2018 #181
Kenji Misumi | 87 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi and the Chess Expert

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 voyage. Although they have mutual respect for each others’ skills and end up travelling together, its clear they have some differences in their moral codes. Meanwhile, Ichi is being pursued by a group of men — well, when isn’t it 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.

Board game expert Jumanji... sorry, Jumonji

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 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.

Sore loser

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.

4 out of 5

Announced late last month, Criterion are bringing their fabulous Blu-ray box set of the Zatoichi series to the UK in November.

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Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964)

aka Zatôichi kesshô-tabi

2018 #76
Kenji Misumi | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Fight, Zatoichi, Fight

It’s a bit ironic that whoever chose the English-language titles* for the Zatoichi films decided to emphasise fighting in the name of this eighth instalment, because it’s perhaps the least concerned with Ichi’s sword skills so far. That’s not to say there aren’t a couple of nifty sequences of blade-clashing fun, but they’re not the film’s focus. You might think that’s antithetical to the series’ purpose, and yet Fight, Zatoichi, Fight is widely regarded as one of the series’ finest instalments, perhaps even the best of all.

It begins, as so many Zatoichi films do, with our hero on the run from some gangsters who want to kill him. Ichi accepts a ride from a pair of passing palanquin carriers, but his would-be assailants spot this and resolve to attack further down the road. Before they make their move, Ichi hears a woman struggling along the road with her baby, and insists she take the palanquin instead. The assassins don’t see the switch, however, and so attack nonetheless, killing the mother. Her papers reveal she was returning to her husband, the baby’s father, and Ichi, blaming himself for her death, insists he make the 65-mile journey to return the infant personally.

This is where Fight differs from the norm, because it’s at least as concerned with Ichi’s need to care for the child as it is with him fending off the assassins, who naturally pursue him on his way. The impromptu sidestep into de facto fatherhood leads to plenty of goofy comedy, much of it around bodily fluids, like when and where the baby pees, the stench of its used nappies, and also a scene where Ichi tries to get the kid to suckle on him while they wait for actual milk. Another amusing sequence sees Ichi hired a prostitute for the night, but only so she can look after the baby and he can get some sleep. But he keeps waking back up nonetheless, each time insisting on doing just one more thing for the baby.

Family unit

You see, Ichi really cares for the kid, and this is where the other side of the equation comes in: as well as comedy, the situation also brings up a good deal of character-driven seriousness, as Ichi is forced to reflect on the lifestyle he has chosen for himself. No one is better than Shintaro Katsu at playing both sides, transitioning between warm humorousness and grim introspection in the blink of an eye.

But it’s not only internally that Ichi has cause to consider his lifestyle. Halfway along their journey, Ichi inadvertently saves the life of a female pickpocket, Ko, who he then employs to be the baby’s nanny — mainly so he can teach her better ways and reform her. But she’s a pretty young lady, so naturally she falls for blind old Ichi, and for the child too, and suddenly they’re a little family unit. And Ko wants it to stay that way, for them to raise the baby together; and, despite his protestations to the contrary, Ichi has come to really like the child, and would probably like that life too. But, without spoiling anything, events transpire to make Ichi realise such an existence just isn’t possible for him, and he must do the right thing for the child’s sake. In the end, despite the laughter along the way, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight is a pretty emotional and sad film, with our hero ending up as he began, and as he always must: alone on the road.

Lest you think it’s too downbeat, let’s talk about the action! Despite being on babysitting duties, there are still some great fight scenes: there’s one where assailants keep bursting into a hut where Ichi’s trying to change the baby’s nappy (now that’s multitasking); and a gambling scene where he catches a cheating boss in the act, with an ensuing fight outside where Ichi keeps shh-ing his attackers because the baby’s asleep. Then the finale lives up to the series’ recent penchant for exciting visuals: the amassed villains surround Ichi with flaming torches in an effort to confuse his hearing, and as our hero slashes away at them even his clothing catches fire. Sure, we know he must prevail, but there’s real jeopardy in this one.

Fiery climax

So, in many respects, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight has it all. It’s even got a unity of story and structure that feels almost rare in the series — everything connects up, pays off, has relevance; unlike other films, which often seem to start with a bit of superfluous action or something. But what it has most of all is a storyline that is unique and emotional, and therefore memorable and affecting. It’s easy to see why the film is so often elevated as one of the series’ very best. It’s probably best appreciated as part of the series, rather than as a newcomer’s entry point, because part of its effectiveness lies in it being different from the norm. That said, it stands as an excellent film in its own right.

5 out of 5

(A quick caveat: although this is the first Zatoichi film I’ve given full marks, I would, with hindsight, award the same to the first movie as well.)

* I say “chose” because a literal translation would be something like Zatoichi’s Journey of Blood and Laughter. ^

The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)

aka Zatôichi monogatari / Zatoichi: The Life and Opinion of Masseur Ichi

2013 #92
Kenji Misumi | 96 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

The Tale of ZatoichiAdapted from a short story by Kan Shimozawa, The Tale of Zatoichi was a low-key release for its studio, Daiei: despite being helmed by “a topflight director”*, it was shot in black and white, its leading man, Shintarô Katsu, “was not really a huge star”, and his co-star, Shigeru Amachi, “had been one of the main stars at Shintoto studios before it went bankrupt and ceased production” — surely a mixed blessing. And yet it was “a surprise hit… touch[ing] a nerve with Japanese audiences, who loved to root for the underdog.” Despite the fact our hero gives up his sword at the end of the film, Daiei produced a sequel, and… well…

Some things are created as film series (all those ’30s and ’40s Hollywood mysteries; Cubby Broccoli and co always intended to do multiple James Bond movies), others just turn into them. The Tale of Zatoichi was the latter. Far from a low-key one-off, it would go on to be a huge touchstone for Japanese culture, spawning 24 sequels over the next 11 years, followed by a 100-episode TV series in the ’70s, and a revival film in 1989 — all starring Katsu. Although he passed away in 1997, Zatoichi has lived on through several remakes and spin-offs in the past decade. Although the character and series has a cult following in the West (brought into sharper focus by the well-received 2003 remake), added significance has been imbued by the incredible, beautiful, 25-film, 27-disc, dual format Criterion Collection box set released last year.

Blind men get all the girlsBut enough hyperbole — what about The Tale itself? The story sees blind masseuse Zatoichi accepting an old invitation to visit an acquaintance, Sukegorô (Eijirô Yanagi). But Sukegorô is a yakuza boss, and he presses Zatoichi to join his side in a brewing war with rival Shigezô (Ryûzô Shimada) — because although he’s blind, the masseuse has legendary sword skills. On Shigezô’s side is a hired samurai, Hirate (Amachi), who Zatoichi encounters by chance. Despite the mutual respect between these two coerced warriors, the eventual gang battle comes down to a duel between them…

Though Zatoichi is best (or quickest) defined as a series of samurai films, those taking that to mean copious swordplay will leave with their expectations unmet after this first movie (I can’t speak for the others yet). Tale is more of a dramatic piece, exploring the dilemmas faced by Zatoichi and Hirate — honour and what is right vs. money and misplaced promises — as well as the fatal romantic entanglements of a couple of other characters in Sukegorô’s camp. Even at the climax, the final (well, only) confrontation between the two warriors is an ‘action sequence’ more in the vein of Sergio Leone than Michael Bay: the characters face each other, they wait, the tension grows, and then there’s a couple of short bursts of to-the-point violence.

CalmThose prepared for a calmer, more considered film may find much to like, however. Katsu’s understated style holds your attention and makes you want to learn more about the character; not his past, necessarily, but his qualities as a man. The same is true of Amachi, in some ways even more appealing as the doomed ronin. You get a genuine sense that Zatoichi and Hirate would have had a great, long-lasting friendship if they’d met under better circumstances, which makes the manner of their encounter all the more tragic. For all the bluster about a big gang war on the horizon, it’s the relationship between these two men that forms the heart of the film.

Also worthy of note is Misumi’s direction, including some choice angles and compositions. There’s the restraint to not always be showy: at times, the bulk of a scene plays out in one static but immaculately framed take. At others, however, the camera is shifted around into positions that are never distracting but always beneficial to the storytelling or beautiful to the eye. Credit to cinematographer Chishi Makiura too, of course, especially for some magnificent lighting. Many a shot here would challenge the best of film noir for shadow-drenched beauty. (I should say, I picked up on none of this from the crummy old DVD I first saw the film on, but a re-watch from Criterion’s Blu-ray was glorious.)

The cane swordReportedly this opener is “not the best of [the] series”, but remains “a grand introduction to the character and a touchstone for many of the themes and gags presented in the later films”.** To me, that suggests much promise for the 24 further instalments: what The Tale of Zatoichi lacks in action, it more than makes up for in character and, perhaps surprisingly, emotion. I thought it was excellent.

4 out of 5

Reviews of further Zatoichi films will follow next year.

* All quotes in the opening paragraph from Chris D.’s notes in the Criterion booklet. ^
** According to The Digital Bits. ^