Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (1964)
Directed by Kazuo Ikehiro

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold
Zatoichi senryo-kubi
Starring Shintaro Katsu (Ichi), Tomisaburo Wakayama (Jushiro), Shogo Shimada (Chuji of Kunisada), Machiko Hasegawa (Ogin), Tatsuya Ishiguro (Enzo), Saburo Date (Asataro), Hikosaburo Kataoka (Iwajiro), Mikiko Tsubouchi, Shinjiro Asano, Matasaburo Tamba, Toranosuke Tennoji, Koichi Mizuhara, Hiroshi Hayashi, Yusaku Terajima, Ichiro Takakura
Music by Akira Ifukube
Cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa

Daiei Studios, 83 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold is a sentimental favorite of mine because it's the first Zatoichi I ever saw, in an IFC "Samurai Saturdays" broadcast. And it happens to be one of the best, a great entry point for any newcomer. One thing that makes it great is the camera work of master cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, the man who shot Rashomon and Yojimbo. In the first of his six Zatoichi features, Miyagawa makes his mark with a stylish title sequence in which Ichi dispatches waves of attackers on an empty black soundstage. Adding to the offbeat tone, there is no musical score in these credits aside from Ichi's high-pitched masseur's whistle that announces "open for business."

The gripping plot revolves around a poor farming village's hard-earned tax payment of 1,000 ryo being stolen while in transit to the intendant's office. An unsuspecting Ichi briefly takes a seat on the waylaid chest of gold and ends up being accused by the farmers of stealing it. Another suspect is Chuji of Kunisada, the legendary chivalrous yakuza boss, who made a cameo appearance as a friendly acquaintance of Ichi in Zatoichi the Fugitive. Chuji was typically known as the benevolent champion of peasants, but since he has fallen on hard times living in exile, his accusers reason that his morality has faltered. Ichi sets out to clear his and Chuji's names and get the stolen gold back from the actual culprits.

Mystery Ronin: Here's is another reason why this movie is awesome. Shintaro Katsu's brother Tomisaburo Wakayama returns to play a mystery ronin figure for the second time, and nobody does it better. In The Tale of Zatoichi Continues he was the one-armed Yoshiro, and in this installment he's Jushiro, a fierce ronin with both arms and Indiana Jones skills with a bullwhip. Working as a yojimbo for the corrupt official Monji, Jushiro is repeatedly drawn into opposition against Ichi.

Dice Game: Yep, there is a dice game, in which Ichi intentionally calls attention to himself by amassing big winnings in a gambling den run by Monji.

Ichi's Amazing Feats: At the aforementioned dice game, Jushiro challenges Ichi to a contest of skill by throwing a dagger into the dice mat and cutting a mon coin in two. Wagering that he can duplicate the trick, Ichi goes Jushiro one better. He nails his mon to the ceiling through the hole in the coin's center, listens as it falls, then chops it in half out of midair.

Ichi's Lady Friends: Ichi doesn't get so lucky with the ladies in this episode. The closest he gets to some action is an encounter with an ugly and smelly old prostitute, whose "massage" skills the master masseur scarcely finds worth paying for. Earlier in the movie Ichi runs across the infinitely more attractive Ogin, a spunky paramour of Monji's, and ends up sharing a hot spring bath with her. She's an intriguing character, but unfortunately she disappears after the first act without much development.

Ichi Loves Kids: In Chuji of Kunisada stories, Chuji often has a kid sidekick of his own, typically a small orphan boy that the yakuza has adopted. When Ichi visits Chuji's mountain hideout, he offers to escort the young nephew of one of the men back to his home. The kid alerts Ichi to an oncoming raid of police officers, pointing out the "pretty lanterns" in the night. (And thanks to Kazuo Miyagawa, the scene absolutely is pretty indeed.) Then Ichi vigorously fights while keeping the child safe on his back.

Musical Interludes: When he first wanders into their village, the farmers are celebrating the completion of their tax payment by banging drums and singing. Ichi asks to play the drums and busts out his funky rhythm.

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold wraps up with one of the best climactic duels in the history of the series, which features Jushiro snaring Ichi with his whip and brutally dragging our hero behind a galloping horse. From the looks of things there's no stuntman involved, and Shintaro Katsu really took some serious punishment. As arguably the most perfect foil to his brother's blind swordsman, Tomisaburo Wakayama sadly never guest-starred in another Zatoichi film, though he did turn up in the television series in the late 1970s.

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