On a boat trip to Honshu Island blind swordsman Zatoichi (Shintarô Katsu) befriends Tadasu Jumonji (Mikio Narita), a ronin ('masterless samurai') highly-skilled at shogi or Japanese chess. When Ichi outwits some would-be swindlers in a game of dice, the men foolishly ambush him in a revenge attack. During the battle a little girl named Miki is accidentally injured. Thereafter a guilt-ridden Ichi resolves to help her aunt Tane (Kaneko Iwasaki), a penniless travelling musician, get the medicine she needs. Having taken a shine to the blind man, Jumonji helps out by landing him a job performing tricks at a sideshow near the Hakone hot-springs. Then a man is murdered near a temple and Ichi discovers his new friend has other more sinister interests besides chess.
As titles go Zatoichi and the Chess Expert might not hold much promise for action fans. Yet it is one of the stronger entries in Japan's longest running chanbara film series. While the Zatoichi films did not stint on the swordplay, more than their balletic violence it was star Shintarô Katsu's intense, empathetic and multi-layered performance that made the series so endlessly watchable. Zatoichi himself is perhaps the most offbeat albeit still iconic lead character in action cinema: tragicomic and introspective, affable but self-loathing, altruistic but deadly when riled. The overarching themes of the Zatoichi series centre on the dichotomy embodied by Ichi: a man who fervently believes his blindness is the physical manifestation of a curse that brings trouble to anyone he meets. Yet who conversely is also the force that restores order.
Here in Zatoichi's twelfth feature film outing chess serves as a visual metaphor both for the dueling forces that make up the world he inhabits and his own conflicted state of mind. Blind or not it is no surprise Ichi's keen analytical mind and near-supernatural skill-set are perfectly suited to the game. Nonetheless he loses his first bout to Jumonji (were the creators of Jumanji big Zatoichi fans? Hmm). The pair strike up an immediate kinship as two master swordsmen in reduced circumstances. As a wandering masseur Ichi occupies a low rung on the feudal social ladder while Jumonji is reduced to performing as a living 'whack-a-mole' street show attraction just to earn a crust. Making his film debut here actor Mikio Narita went on to portray countless scowling villains. The two warriors size each other up, analyzing each other's moral code throughout a compact but nuanced and well thought out plot. Screenwriters Daisuke Ito and Kan Shimozawa strike a host of familiar story beats but manage to spin them in fresh and unorthodox ways. Kenji Misumi, who helmed several of the most remarkable entries in the series, doles out just the right ratio of swordplay and character development while Kanji Suganuma delivers a masterclass in the use of editing to build dramatic tension.
At around the forty minute mark Zatoichi and the Chess Expert unexpectedly appears to veer off into a different plot altogether. It suddenly brings on another set of characters. Principally young lord Sasagara and his sister Kume, the latter as per martial arts movie convention a beautiful woman disguised unconvincingly as a man, who are on the run from a hired killer. In most cases this would leave the film looking rather disjointed but the script skilfully interweaves disparate strands and takes pains to ensure details introduced in the first third pay off. This includes a surprise twist that ties Tane to some earlier episodes in the series. Characteristically for this most humane of chanbara franchises the plot emphasizes Zatoichi's vulnerability. At various moments his blindness causes him to slip and fall, his gambling tricks don't always work and he often relies on the kindness of strangers. His self-loathing also comes into play as he rejects a potential love interest and, in one particularly affecting scene, is reduced to silent tears as result of a child's thank you. Music by Akira Ifukube, reminiscent of his brooding Godzilla themes.