ZATOICHI AND THE CHESS EXPERT

(Japanese Title: Zatoichi Jigoku tabi )
(1965- Japan)
With Shintaro Katsu, Mikio Narita
Directed by Kenji Misumi
Reviewed by JB

      Ichi the Masseur befriends a chess-playing samurai, a young woman with traveling with her little niece, and a brother and sister out for revenge.  Yet the secrets each one of these new friends holds will lead to Zatoichi eventually walking down the road, alone, bodies strewn haphazardly behind him.

     ZATOICHI AND THE CHESS EXPERT is a definite improvement on the flat ZATOICHI AND THE DOOMED MAN, mixing up the various expected elements in new and intriguing ways.  For example, the by-now required gambling scene has Ichi reprising a neat little piece of slight of hand with the dice, a maneuver first seen in TALE OF ZATOICHI, yet in a later gambling scene, he loses all his money using the same trick. Humor and violence is always necessary for a good Ichi film, and here, the humor is often in the violence.  Ichi may be the Japanese Chaplin, but physically, he looks more like Curly Howard, and in several scenes, he forgoes swordplay and employs Three Stooges-like violence on the usual gangsters who are looking to kill him.  Who else but the Stooges or Ichi would hold a bad guy at bay using a lit pipe shoved up a nostril? 

    The recent trend of "Ichi plus cute child" allows star Shintaro Katsu some of his most emotional moments in a story line that has him looking for ways to make quick cash to earn money to buy the medicine the child needs to live.  His touching reaction to the child's "Uncle Ichi... thank you" is unforgettable.  As always, Katsu's portrayal of Zatoichi the Human Being rather than Zatoichi the Super Hero makes most of the films in the series worthy of watching and rewatching.

      Co-star Mikio Narita, playing the chess expert, is a superb sidekick, one who displays great chemistry with the star.  Of course, there is no hope of this character sticking around for later films, especially after Ichi learns of his past deeds.

     ZATOICHI AND THE CHESS EXPERT is never quite sure what kind of movie it wants to be - it starts out as a comedy and ends as a violent story of revenge - but it is nevertheless a solid vehicle for the always amazing Katsu as well as his talented co-stars. ½

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