Zatoichi and the Chess Expert (1965)
Directed by Kenji Misumi

Zatoichi and the Chess Expert
Zatoichi jigoku tabi
Starring Shintaro Katsu (Ichi), Mikio Narita (Jumonji), Kaneko Iwasaki (Tane), Chizu Hayashi (Kume), Gaku Yamamoto (Sagawa), Taro Marui (Roppei), Rokko Toura (Crippled yakuza), Saburo Date, Takuya Fujioka, Tatsuo Endo
Screenplay by Daisuke Ito
Music by Akira Ifukube

Daiei Studios, 87 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

Directed by the original Zatoichi director Kenji Misumi and scripted by jidai-geki founding father Daisuke Ito, this is among the most memorable installments in the series. Appropriate to the English title, the complex and layered story sets out a large cast of characters like the pieces on a chess board, but the audience (and Ichi) are coming into a game already in progress. There's a mysterious swordsman who loves chess, a samurai brother and sister on a secret mission, a female shamisen player with a little girl, and yakuza clans with various bloodthirsty agendas. It's not until halfway through the movie that we begin to understand who is on which side and what the real stakes are.

Mystery Ronin: Along with the two early Tomisaburo Wakayama appearances and Tatsuya Nakadai later on in The Festival of Fire, the titular chess expert is one of the definitive Zatoichi mystery ronin. Jumonji is a gentlemanly ronin who strikes up a friendship with over a game of chess on a boat trip. The pair decide to travel together, and Ichi surmises that Jumonji may be on some sort of revenge mission, but all we know is that this skilled ronin humbly earns pocket change by letting commoners bash his head as a carnival act. Ichi and Jumonji play chess matches throughout the movie, dispensing with the board when Jumonji realizes it's unfair for Ichi to be the only player keeping track of the pieces by memory. So it fittingly becomes a matter of "head games" between the two thoughtful warriors as they gradually come to know each other's secrets.

Dice Game: During that sea voyage, Ichi joins a dice game in the ship's hold and pulls his usual hustle of rolling the dice outside the cup. His resulting haul angers a yakuza gang who give him plenty of grief with dire consequences. We actually get a bumper crop of three rounds of dice playing in this movie, one of which brings about a startlingly original development: Ichi loses. His blind man's bluff backfires and all his money is gone. So finally we see that even the virtuoso gambler Zatoichi can't win every time.

Ichi's Amazing Feats: To raise some more stake funds after Ichi goes bust, Jumonji comes up with a clever idea. Ichi amazes crowds at a festival by using a spike to catch hole-pierced coins that they toss at him. Such behavior violates Ichi's code against using his skills for entertainment, but when you're broke I guess it's hard to argue with letting people literally throw money at you.

Ichi Loves Kids: A traveling shamisen player named Tane and her young niece Miki get caught in the crossfire of Ichi's brawl with yakuza over gambling disputes, and a cut on the little girl's foot leads her to come down with tetanus. Miki needs imported medicine that's expensive and only available far away, and Ichi undertakes great pains to save her life.

Musical Interludes: We get some performances from Tane and Miki, and Ichi plays Tane's shamisen for Miki while she's in bed recovering from her illness.

Ichi's Lady Friends: No big surprise, Tane ends up falling in love with Ichi. Trying to maintain emotional distance, Ichi tells her he once loved another woman named Tane, whom we recall from the first few movies, and protests that his heart still belongs to that late lamented beauty.

Similar to the first Zatocihi movie, Zatoichi and the Chess Expert revolves around a mystery ronin who goes from being Ichi's good friend to being his opponent in a fatal duel. But whereas Miki Harate remained virtuous to the end, pitted against Ichi only because of incurable illness and a petty yakuza war, Jumonji turns out to be rotten. When Ichi gradually uncovers Jumonji's deeds, he has no choice but to turn against him. But it's not a simple matter of Jumonji being a wolf in sheep's clothing. Jumonji becomes a mirror of Ichi, and we see that Ichi has committed comparable sins. On the cutthroat yakuza path Ichi has chosen to walk, no matter how hard he tries to do right and help those in need, there are no good guys. There is only killing and survival.

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