film

25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #12 Zatoichi and The Chess Expert (1965)

Writer/Director: Daisuke Ito/Kenji Misumi (3rd film)

Summary: “Zatoichi and The Chess Expert” begins with Zatoichi being pursued by henchmen from previous films still holding a grudge. Zatoichi boards a ferry to Honshu island, leaving his pursuers on the mainland to take the long way around. While on the boat Zatoichi decides to make a bit of money through some dice gambling among the passengers aboard. As expected he employs some expert sleight of hand tricks to see if they’d take advantage of a blind man if the dice fell outside of the cup, the raucous group were all too eager to exploit the blind man’s weakness and Zatoichi let them build their expectations up before pulling the rug out from under them- resulting in a large sum of winnings (Though later we see Zatoichi legitimately lose at dice, a first for the series). While aboard the ship Zatoichi finds a fast friend in the samurai going by the name of Jumonji (Mikio Narita). Impressed by Zatoichi’s skill in dealing with a couple of the resentful gamblers aboard, he accepts Ichi’s request for a game of Shogi Chess, and is again nearly caught off guard by the blind swordsman’s skill- even in intellectual games. Later, on the island, the aggrieved gamblers track him down and set a trap for the blind masseur by having him massage the local Yakuza boss that they happen to be in touch with. While they do get the jump on Zatoichi at first by pinning him to the ground, he escapes their grip and in the scuffle he dropkicks one of the men out the 2nd story window resulting in a young girl getting a broken foot. Once outside, Zatoichi attempts to help, feeling profound guilt as her injury was an unexpected consequence of his brawl. When the girl’s aunt, who she’s traveling with, can’t afford the medicine required, Zatoichi heads out to make enough money with his usual gambling tricks, and after some trial and error, he returns with the medicine in hand with some help from Jumonji. The four of them then decide to travel to the hot springs not far from their location to further heal Miki.

Once there the group meet new guests at the inn and hot springs, a young lord named Sagawa (Gaku Yamamoto), his retainer Roppei (Tarô Marui), and the lord’s sister Kume (Chizu Hayashi) dressed as man (to avoid unwanted suspicions on the road). The trio are on a fact finding mission to track down the murderer that killed their father, who had been cut down over a heated game of shogi chess. When Roppei turns up dead at a nearby temple with evidence of strangling, Zatoichi is perplexed- until some children bring back a lure found in the pond near the scene of the crime. After the facts begin to build Zatoichi’s suspicion grows. He, Otane, Miki, and Jumonji all head out on the road as planned, and to pass the time Jumonji suggests a verbal game of Shogi Chess. Each move between them seems to ratchet up the tension until Zatoichi lets Jumonji win thereby confirming his guilt as the killer with his known tell of scratching his nose and snapping his fingers. With that single action Zatoichi reveals his knowledge by showing Jumonji the red lure and engaging in battle. He only wounds Jumonji before Lord Sagawa and Kume arrive with swords to finish the job and secure their vengeance. At the same time the henchmen from the beginning of the film sneak up and kidnap Miki and run off with her, which prompts a fun one versus five end fight sequence in which Zatoichi skillfully slays them all before walking off into the distance once more.

My favorite part: With the Zatoichi series, a great villain can always spice up the familiar ingredients, and that’s exactly the case with “Zatoichi and the Chess Expert”. Jumonji was a clever and calculating villain- and one of the few enemies that seemed to be an ally to the blind swordsman for most of the film’s runtime. The performance by Mikio Narita was charming, sly, and cold blooded- perfect for a Zatoichi villain.

Why it’s great: Kenji Misumi is starting to become one of my new favorite Japanese directors with this series. His work on the “Lone Wolf and Cub” film series in the early 1970s paired with his films within the Zatoichi series strike a tone that resonates with me deeply. I know I’m getting ahead of myself here but I’ve been watching far ahead in the film series so I can always be ahead of the next quick review, but Misumi’s next film in the series is “Zatoichi Challenged” and it might be my favorite film of the bunch. Misumi seems to be very invested in stories where young children are protected by powerful swordsmen, and that element is very present in this film. While Zatoichi isn’t exactly on the road as the sole protector of Miki, her safety and health is at the core of his concern for this film. This one ranks higher for me than the last few films, good character development with a clear narrative can do wonders for this formula of popular genre film.

Final Score: 5 Ryo

film

25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #11 Zatoichi and The Doomed Man (1965)

Writer/Director: Shozaburo Asai (4th film)/Kazuo Mori (2nd film)

Summary: “Zatoichi and the Doomed Man” opens with Zatoichi imprisoned for illegal gambling and getting fifty lashes for the offense. While in his cell, the only other prisoner, Shimazo (Koichi Mizuhara), pleads for Zatoichi to help as he’s been wrongfully imprisoned for crimes he claimed he did not commit. Zatoichi hears the man’s pleas, but once freed he ultimately decides not to pursue the request, he’s gotten into too much trouble in the past for involving himself in such situations. When he happens upon a small town he impresses a young man named Hyakutaro at a game house where he effortlessly wins the archery challenge gaining a large sum of winnings. Afterwards, the muscle from the gaming house tries to strong arm their money back, but Zatoichi slays them all, stunning Hyakutaro who only seemed interested in profits and the reliability of a good scam. Thus he convinces Zatoichi to let him travel with him for awhile. While on the road they run into a wounded man in trouble, and in need of a hasty solution to keep his restaurant nearby open for business. Hyakutaro offers to help by delivering the wounded man’s documents while Zatoichi helps him travel there at a slower rate. By the time Zatoichi arrives with the wounded man, it’s dark and the waiting party tells Zatoichi that they already “paid that guy called Zatoichi a large enough sum for the both of you“. Obviously, Hyakutaro had run off, pretending to be Zatoichi, and absorbing the spoils of life at the expense of those in need- and darting once he’s needed! This obviously rubs Zatoichi the wrong way, and once he finds out where he is, Zatoichi makes sure the charade is ended, though Hyakutaro continues to follow the blind swordsman to his displeasure. In-between all of this Zatoichi had inadvertently come to the town that the doomed prisoner Shimazo told him of and due to an alternate scam run by the local Boss, he earned a meeting with the local official that confirmed what Shimazo had said. There’s a lot of over-explaining that can go on at times with these plots, but the root of the issue is that Shimazo was too popular as the right hand man of Yakuza Boss, and that Boss feared a mutiny led by Shimazo, so he worked with another town’s boss to set up Shimazo for the death penalty to secure his power.

My favorite part: The idea that there would eventually be a false Zatoichi running around claiming to be the living legend himself is a fun concept. The performance from Kanbi Fujiyama as Hyakutaro (the usurper) was cheeky, he played the lovable scoundrel part well and his arrogance paired with complete ineptitude was a joy set against Zatoichi’s stern, but humble, morality. I also really appreciated the impact of discovering that Hyakutaro was Shimazo’s son.

Why it’s great: While the pacing, plot, and performances were all on point and fairly enjoyable throughout the film, there wasn’t anything particularly excellent that stood out to me. The end fight sequence set in a foggy seaside town was visually interesting with visceral kills and lots of tension, but aside from that the composition, framing, and cinematography overall was good, but a bit workman-like for the series at this point. I’m pretty sure this was the first time Zatoichi had ever been to the ocean as well, and having a child explain the enormity of the ocean to him was a nice moment for the character.

Final Score: 1 Doomed Man and his son

film

25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: # 10 Zatoichi’s Revenge (1965)

Writer/Director: Minoru Inuzuka (6th film)/ Akira Inoue

Summary: “Zatoichi’s Revenge” may have the darkest plot points of the series, definitely of the first half of films, though I haven’t quite finished the series yet. This one’s fairly compelling, though it’s another example of more of the same ingredients from past films- but with a few new variations. It’s another case of corrupt government officials working with criminals to satiate their lust for money and power. As the film opens Zatoichi realizes that he’s near the village where he underwent his masseur training and decides to pay his sensei, Master Hikonoichi, a visit. Upon arrival he discovers that his old sensei had just recently been killed while traveling on the road nearby. Even worse yet, Hikonoichi’s daughter Sayo had been forced into prostitution! When searching for Sayo in order to free her, it’s revealed to Zatoichi that almost all of the daughters of the town have been forced into sexual slavery as well. The three main villains of this film are Tatsugoro, the local businessman that worked up financial crimes that preyed upon the lenders, his boss the corrupt Intendant Isoda overseeing the whole process, and Koheita Kadokura, the ronin samurai in town working as a blade for hire. Eventually through the usual information gathering process of rooting out corruption in gambling houses and intimidation through feats of swordplay skill, Zatoichi finds out who the culprits are and seeks them out. Pretty standard stuff for the series at this point.

My favorite part: Honestly, the ongoing fight sequences that litter the second half of the film are very entertaining. They’re well shot, captivatingly choreographed, and thrilling to watch. It also helps that all of the unfortunate fodder for Zatoichi’s blade are despicable people working to enforce the massive prostitution ring in the town. Good stuff!

Why it’s great: One of the great story beats of this film centers on Zatoichi’s friendship with the local dice dealer Denroku. The skilled dice dealer never wanted to cheat players, he admits to Zatoichi that he’s under the thumb of Tatsugoro and Isoda’s oppression, and Zatoichi forgives him. Later when the villains are starting to get uneasy about Zatoichi’s snooping around, they order Denroku to steal the blind swordsman’s cane sword or submit his own daughter, Tsuru, to one of the local brothels. When Tsuru overhears this, she steals the blade herself and hands it to her father, who finds his impression on her to commit such acts that he gets incredibly drunk and wanders the town in a funk. After awhile he stumbles into a noodle stand and openly bemoans his situation. To his surprise the proprietor of the noodle shop isn’t a normal noodle chef- but Zatoichi himself. Ichi encourages Denroku to give up the criminal life and to lead a better life for Tsuru’s sake, at which point the dice dealer acknowledges his mistakes, and hands the cane sword back to its owner.

Final Score: 1 Cane Sword versus dozens of henchmen