Not rated, but we've been down this rabbit hole before. Zatoichi kills a lot of folks as people take advantage of his blindness. While there is a lot of death, there is very little actual blood. If you have seen another Zatoichi movie, you know what you are in for. It's the same movie over-and-over again. But at least you don't have to be shocked about content. It's par for the course.
DIRECTOR: Kenji Misumi
It feels like I watched this months and months ago. It was last week. Advent time. It seems like a very different world. The last Zatoichi movie gave me hope that I had entered a new phase of Zatoichi film. There was an actual plot and I really enjoyed just having something new. With a title like Zatoichi and the Chess Expert, I thought, for sure, that this was going to have an original story. But I now know that it will always be a swirling spiral of the same film, making it nearly impossible to write about.
Now, does this mean that I don't enjoy watching these films? Not necessarily. I have a moderately good time while watching them. But I can tell you that I have a real struggle writing about them. I keep kind of returning to the same well. Really, I suppose that these blogs become a subtextual exercise in my mental state. After all, imagine you were asked to watch a movie over and over again, and then approach that film from a different perspective each time. It might be more of a critique about the writer than it is the subject matter. So I'm actively choosing my conceit this time. Normally, I let the theme kind of define itself while writing. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. But today, I'm going to re-examine the rules of Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman.
One of the favorite bits that these movies loves doing is having people cheat Zatoichi out of his fortune because he's blind. Because of this, Zatoichi has become a bit of a con man. He goes around, intentionally bumbling into gambling situations, forcing people to reveal their duplicitous natures. I thought we were past that by this entry in this series, but I have to kinda / sorta applaud this entry for actually have these moments have meaning. Zatoichi's bit is to play a game of dice and "accidentally" expose the dice to have people cheat him out of his money. When he reveals that they are looking at the wrong dice, they are forced to pay him for their lies. Or they try fighting them and Zatoichi rips them apart. But in this movie, the weird thing that happens is that Zatoichi's con backfires. He pulls his same old shannanigans, but the dice still read against what he wanted them to.
Now, I don't know what the movie is trying to do with this. There really isn't an explanation to why Zatoichi's con didn't work this time. And this is where my questions keep on returning. I feel like a friend from high school who kept questioning whether Peter-from-Family-Guy's references were all canon. How blind is Zatoichi? That's really poorly worded, but it is the phrase that keeps on running through my head. There are times where Zatoichi seems like he's just a dude who has compensated for his blindness with sheer skill. But then there are other times where he's Daredevil. Like, the issue with the cheating is that he actively wills the dice to turn out the way he wants them to. The other alternative is that he's cheating even harder than everyone else there with loaded dice.
But if Zatoichi has loaded dice, doesn't that kind of make him the villain? He always knows exactly what direction the dice are going to take...until today. Is it just because the con man even has to drop that ball sometime? Are the odds just so impossibly in his favor most of the time that he would eventually have to get the wrong answer? But the movie kind of teases a Spider-Man 2 kind of loss of power going on. Throughout the film, Zatoichi kind of just seems more flawed. He almost falls off a boat and needs to be dragged on. He keeps tripping over things. What happened to the Zatoichi who kept on taking on wave-after-wave of bad guys?
It makes it really hard to root for Zatoichi when his skill set is all over the place. He's a Mary Sue character for most of the series. But he never really takes a hit unless it is the last ten minutes of the movie and someone gets a lucky hit in with a rope or something. But the movie is almost aware of how impossibly lucky Zatoichi is. There's this group that reminds me of the Wet Bandits, wanting to exact their revenge on that kid who keeps beating them up. The movie knows about Zatoichi's reputation and the fact that he absolutely humiliates anyone who steps up to him. But then, he can just almost fall off a boat. Or he can just start losing at dice. It almost feels like the movie doesn't know what to do about Zatoichi dealing with loss. I kept waiting for an explanation to his newfound fallibility, but there's nothing to be offered.
This movie almost wanted to be about a billion things. On one hand, is it a movie about Zatoichi coming to grips with his own imperfection? I don't think so. It almost seems to be a plot device to make the movie more than half-an-hour long. Then, there's the typical Zatoichi becoming attached to a woman, in this case a woman with a daughter. But then, why is the movie called Zatoichi and the Chess Expert. I love the idea of the chess expert, but the execution (pun intended) of the chess expert is something to be desired.
I adore the idea that the chess expert is just a sociopath. He kills people because they are more skilled than he is. It's not that he's the best. It's just that he doesn't allow people to be better than he is so he kills him. The fact that he befriends Zatoichi just builds this amazing suspense. We get pretty early on that the chess expert is seemingly better than Zatoichi at chess. But there's also this hint that Zatoichi is holding back to either make friends with this guy or to size him up properly. But this killer has amazing samurai skills. Like many of the Zatoichi films, we see displays of his skill and prowess with a sword, teasing that the fight between the chess expert and Zatoichi will be epic. But in this case, Zatoichi simply traps the chess expert into a plan, forcing him to reveal his true murderous nature. It's very brief. For some reason, I thought this was going to be the one where we met the Moriarty version of Zatoichi. I want to have someone who haunts Zatoichi with his or her abilities. But we don't really get that.
It's a fun movie, but it's also just another Zatoichi movie. I need something new. I know, there's a Zatoichi v. Yojimbo movie in the box set. But I have a feeling that I'm just setting myself up for failure. I'll enjoy watching these movies, but I won't enjoy squeezing water from a stone.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.