There may not be much action, but this quite solid 12th instalment takes its time to give us well-developed characters in a narrative about strategic one-upmanship.
Dir. Kenji Misumi
1965 | Japan | Action/Adventure/Drama | 87 mins | 2.35:1 | Japanese
Not rated (likely to be PG13)
Cast: Shintaro Katsu, Mikio Narita, Chizu Hayashi
Plot: A samurai with a high skill in chess makes friends with Zatoichi, who finds that things become peculiar in his presence.
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
You have to give it to Kenji Misumi for giving us a change of pace in the Zatoichi series every time he directs an instalment.
Responsible for the first and auspicious The Tale of Zatoichi (1962), as well as the even more impressive eighth instalment, Fight, Zatoichi, Fight (1964), Misumi once again eschews action for a more controlled narrative with ample character development.
In Zatoichi and the Chess Expert, we get to see Shintaro Katsu’s blind swordsman engaging in his favourite pastime—tricking, with good reason, people who take advantage of his blindness during gambling.
He is pitted against a new acquaintance, a samurai who is obsessed with chess and seems to be hiding a dark past.
“You have to understand, Otane. The man you’re looking at is dirt.”
The film is built upon the theme of strategic one-upmanship, be it in dice, chess, or in the matter of the sword; it’s not a surprise then that some of the film’s best moments feature the two of them sizing each other up psychologically.
Secrets and revelations emerge through the film, with Zatoichi needing to be quick-thinking not just with martial skills but mentally as well.
With a little girl’s life at stake and dealing with the prospect of a woman falling in love with him, The Chess Expert revisits some of the themes in the earlier films where Zatoichi dreamt of leading a normal life instead of operating outside of the law.
Overall, this is quite solid, and a huge step up from the poor and disappointing Zatoichi and the Doomed Man (1965).