What does a blind swordsman have to do with a chess expert? Judge Dan Mancini lets you be the judge.
"You have to understand, Miss Tane. The man you're looking at is dirt. And everyone who comes close to him or touches him, in one way or another gets muddied by that dirt."—Ichi
Zatoichi and the Chess Expert begins with a ferry ride from Tateyama to Miura on which a dice-game swindle puts Ichi (Shintaro Katsu)—our lovable masseur/gambler/defender of the downtrodden—on the wrong side of a gaggle of bumbling retainers from the powerful Banyu family. The Banyus are on a hunt for a woman named Tane; the motive for their search is unclear. During the boat ride, Ichi also meets a mysterious samurai named Jumon (Mikio Narita, Legend of the Eight Samurai), with an deadly obsession with chess ("I kill to kill," he tells Ichi, "even in chess"). Once dropped off at his destination, Ichi comes across a woman who is the guardian of a young girl stricken with tetanus. Our blind hero determines to find the 5 ryo needed to pay for the girl's medicine, the chess-playing samurai signing on as an ally in his mission. At a hot spring in Hakone, Ichi meets a samurai recuperating from a long illness. The man and his sister are seeking vengeance on a samurai who murdered their father. The duo's retainer, Roppei, was the only witness to the killing and the only man who can identify the murderer. When he's killed, the siblings' quest appears destined for failure. As the plot unfolds, the connections between the Banyus, the chess-playing samurai, the woman and little girl, and the vengeance-seeking brother and sister, begin to reveal themselves to Ichi. Soon enough, he's figured out what he must do to ensure everyone receives the justice he or she deserves.
This 12th episode of the Zatoichi series sees the return of Kenji Misumi, who directed the blind swordsman's first film, as well as film number eight, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight, a superior outing in which Ichi is saddled with an orphaned infant whom he must reunite with his samurai father. Misumi made a career of directing chambara (swashbucklers) programmers. In addition to directing three more Ichi pictures after Zatoichi and the Chess Expert, he also helmed four of the six Lone Wolf and Cub films produced by Katsu and starring his brother, Tomisaburo Wakayama. For a director whose films were designed to be disposable entertainment rather than art, Misumi's work exhibits a certain visual panache, and he often succeeds in injecting his tales with a surprising level of emotion. Indeed, Zatoichi and the Chess Expert is one of the better entries in the series, quite an accomplishment considering it's Ichi's 12th adventure since he first hit Japanese theaters only three years earlier.
Writer-director Daisuke Ito—whose experience with chambara and samurai movies dated back to the 1920s, and included the 1934 version of Chushingura—penned the script, which intricately knits the motivations of the large number of characters, and reveals their connections to one another with a deliberation that stretches across the picture's entire running time. As an audience, we spend most of the movie not quite knowing what's going on. There's a seeming randomness to Ichi's interactions with the various character groups. It's a clever gambit on Ito's part because, since 11 previous Ichi flicks have taught us the series's stories are tidy melodramas, we abide happily in our confusion, faithful the seemingly disconnected story threads will coalesce into a unified whole by film's end. And they do. Still, the movie plays as a bit of a mystery, which is a refreshing change of pace for the series.
Misumi does a masterful job of adding texture to Ito's intricate structure, as well as exploiting the charm of his lead actor. A scene in which Ichi is jumped by the Banyu gang in a thicket of overgrown weeds and, in the process of whipping their butts, momentarily loses the box containing the money he's raised to pay for the sick child's medicine is one of the most touching in the series. The deadly swordsman's panic as he fumbles around on the ground, looking for the box with his hands, nearing an emotional breakdown at the thought of the girl having to wait yet longer for the medicine that can save her, is a reminder that our attraction to the character has as much to do with his weakness and vulnerability as it does his acts of derring-do.
In nearly every Zatoichi film, the female lead falls in love with the grubby, poor, and blind former yakuza, usually because she's drawn to his kindness and willingness to defend the weak. Ichi always falls for them, too, but knows that returning their love will only drag them into his world of poverty and violence. The believability of the women's passions for Ichi vary from episode to episode, but Zatoichi and the Chess Expert presents one of the most fully-realized unrequited romances since the earliest films in the series. Ichi's kindness to the sick child, and the lengths to which he goes to ensure her well-being, are the foundation upon which the child's guardian falls head over heels for him. It's a clear and believable piece of character motivation. But Ito and Misumi complicate matters by making us question the woman's veracity—does she love Ichi, or is she working an unseen angle? As a matter of fact, Zatoichi and the Chess Expert is filled with little moments in which Ito and Misumi turn the tried-and-true Ichi formulas on their heads, setting up familiar scenarios then delivering the unexpected. I won't detail them here because experiencing them fresh is an integral part of the joy of sitting down with this entry in the series.
As Home Vision Entertainment's line of Zatoichi releases progress, the less aged source materials increase in quality. Zatoichi and the Chess Expert sports the highest video quality of any of the releases yet. Detail is sharper than in the previous waves of releases, and colors are more fully saturated, with extremely accurate fleshtones. The image is almost impeccably clean with hardly a sign of any minor imperfections let alone major damage.
Audio is a two-channel mix of the original mono, and it has the flat dynamic range typical of Japanese sources of the period. Still, this one exhibits less distortion during the blaring opening music than previously released titles. Dialogue is consistently clean and discernible.
The only extras on the disc are trailers for episodes 11, 12, and 13 in the series. Housed as an easy-to-find Easter egg is a brief trailer produced by HVE that covers all of the Zatoichi titles they'll be releasing (17 in all, with the final wave of three coming later this year).
Inside the keep case, you'll find a 14x22 collectible poster, and a four-page insert booklet with a brief essay by Japanese film scholar Michael Jeck. My only beef with the extras is that a brief explanation of Shogi—the Japanese variation of chess played by Jumon and Ichi—would have been helpful to those interested, though I suppose one doesn't miss out on any of the film's fun in the absence of such information. The subtitles during the men's games make reference to Gold and Silver Generals and Lances—pieces unique to Shogi—so it appears the specifics of the game, to the extent they appear in the film, weren't Westernized for easier consumption by North Americans.
Zatoichi and the Chess Expert is a rousing piece of action entertainment. That's quite an achievement for the 12th entry in a franchise. In terms of technical quality, this DVD represents the pinnacle of HVE's Zatoichi releases so far.
If you're an Ichi fan, don't miss it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
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