Directed by Kenji Misumi, written by Daisuke Ito.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Mikio Narita (Jumonji, a handsome rogue samurai), Kaneko Iwasaki (Otane, a woman conflicted about Zatoichi), Chizuru Hayashi (Kume, a woman in disguise), Gaku Yamamoto (Sagawa, her sickly brother), and Taro Marui (Roppei, their loyal servant)
Zatoichi and the Chess Expert illustrates the promises and pitfalls of “slow cinema” better than I ever could, even if it’s sometimes not that slow. Me, I’ve always been suspicious of the term. Don’t get me wrong. I can be a fan of long takes, stationary cameras, halting “true-to-life” dialogue, action that aspires to inertia, and mise-en-scene that recalls the white space of a blank page. If I think it’s appropriate for the material and if the director’s got command of the slowness so that it sharpens and clarifies life rather than just his/her technique, then good for them. Yasujiro Ozu, Hong Sang-soo, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Charles Burnett, Claire Denis—those are among my favorite film directors. They reveal details, plots, characterizations, and incidents slowly because, sometimes, you gotta slow things down to sort them down. Prayer, meditation, and yoga exist for good reasons. No one wants to pay $100 for a steak dinner only to wolf it down in 45 seconds flat. We savor things. We let them marinate and simmer, and that process intensifies their pleasures, and makes us remember them more avidly. By forcing us to slow down, the aforementioned filmmakers attune our eyes and ears to cadences that we’d otherwise miss, textures we wouldn’t see or feel, and reveal that it’s those “minor” grace notes that are the keys to their films.
But “slowness” is only one of many appropriate responses to life, only one of a multitude of ways to approach artmaking. A slackened pace and minimalist design don’t, in and of themselves, represent a greater sense of truth or “authenticity.” Sometimes, “slow cinema” masks the deficiencies of the production budget or the filmmakers’ talents.
So, let’s take Zatoichi and the Chest Expert‘s interminable long, static takes as examples: Two men talking over a chess game. A group of people gambling in the deck of a boat. A woman caring for her sick daughter. Each of these scenes could, perhaps usefully, be broken up into a variety of shots—closeups, medium shots, long shots, landscapes, from above and below. Each shot could reveal something new, ratchet up tension, reveal something that was hidden from us in the previous shot, etc. Any film director, best boy, actor, or producer could tell you, though, that there’s a problem with all those shots. Each new shot requires a new camera setup, fresh lighting design, someone to mark the blocking, a script girl to keep the continuity of the scene straight. A scene of two guys chatting could take four hours to shoot, just to accommodate all the camera and lighting setups, not to mention unionized smoke breaks or an actor’s tantrum. If you’re shooting on location, and many Zatoichis are shot largely outdoors, then you have to worry about how the position of clouds, sun, and associated shadows have shifted, too.
If you’re working on a tight production schedule and an even tighter production budget, then suddenly all that shot variance no longer looks so good. Why not do one camera setup, get it all in one take, and move on to the next scene? I think “slow cinema” defenders often treat its practitioners as if the long takes and miniscule set design are purely aesthetic choices that denote “realism,” rather than—as they often are—accommodations designed to promote efficiency.
How efficient? Chess Expert is Kenji Misumi’s second Zatoichi effort in a year, and Daiei Studio’s third Zatoichi movie of 1965. So, ironically, the sheer warp speed of production prompted a cinema that feels slower. There are scenes here that fly by, gripping in their emotional intensity, and there’s an editing sequence—a buildup to a fight that never comes—that’s marvelous precisely because Misumi alternates the shots quickly. There are other scenes that essentially broadcast how cheap the production is—a boat ride that takes up the film’s first third, in which we never see the boat on the sea (because it’s obviously a set); a lush hot springs resort that we never see in landscape view (because it’s obviously a set); fight scenes at night—the better to hide the set construction—with relatively few combatants (by Zatoichi standards), that are over quickly; a boat’s trajectory being shown by following a map rather than, you know, shooting the scene. (Raiders of the Lost Ark would steal that trick a decade later.)
That seesaw of speed vs. slowness creates an interesting tension, one that Misumi isn’t always capable of handling. He favors slow, mathematical precision, and always has with this series. (See: Fight, Zatoichi, Fight and The Tale of Zatoichi.) His compositions are full of right angles…
…the cleanliness of numbers…
…and ground-level, grounded imagery.
In Chess Expert, he pulls off a magnificent match cut of a samurai slicing a floating strip of paper into two halves (with his eyes closed)…
…which then cuts (get it?) to the next scene, of a different man holding a similarly sized bit of paper.
He also channels the clockwork precision of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), which was also a low-budget quickie genre exercise made five years earlier.
Misumi is ideal for Daiei’s Zatoichi line, so it’s surprising that so much of the fight choreography is poorly staged—clumsy, too cluttered, spatially confused. The first big fight sequence, in a boss’s office, feels especially inept.
Sometimes, though, the quick, surprising bursts of messiness suit Chess Expert. As with Kazuo Mori, Misumi loves his loopy water imagery. And he loves to linger his slow camera on actors’s faces, and this may be Chess Expert‘s most appealing quality. In the visages of Mikio Narita (the chess-playing samurai of the title) and Kaneko Iwasaki (as Otane, a woman with mixed motives), Misumi finds haunting, lovely faces that I wanted to swim in.
Neither role is villainous, exactly, but neither’s entirely good. Both put Misumi’s long, seductive takes to brilliant use, showing a wide range of expression with gestures that reveal themselves gradually.
Narita plays another variation of Zatoichi‘s dashing, melancholy rival samurais. He’s terrific, giving off a cerebral aura. But there are auras and then there are glows, and it’s the radiance of Iwasaki’s acting that ignites the screen. I think it’s the single best performance I’ve seen so far in this series—there’s been nothing quite like her in Zatoichi. As soon as Otane sees Zatoichi, on that long boat ride, we see a quiver in her eyes and a catch in her throat that indicates—what? We don’t immediately know. But we understand that she’s met Ichi before, even if he doesn’t remember it. Her hesitancy and anxiety startles, because it doesn’t seem to be borne of fear but of rage. But there’s something else to that trembling, too, a latent attraction that Otane may not even realize is there. (Iwasaki somehow transmits this attraction and her character’s unawareness of it simultaneously.) Attraction turns into love, after Zatoichi does a good deed on behalf of Otane’s daughter, and Iwasaki gets us to see the emotional shift, but there’s still anger underneath. Mind you, Iwasaki never screams. She has the character bottle her fury, until she reveals to Zatoichi why she’s so angry with him—I won’t spoil it—but that revelation comes through heartbreak; she’s revealing that she loves him in the very same speech. Vocal inflection, pauses, halting gestures, and resolute eyes—these are the tools Iwasaki uses to convey the warring emotions, usually three or four roiling at once, of a character that’s deeply resilient but who so desperately needs to be held. Beneath all the slow cinema, under the fast production, to the side of a straightforward samurai flick, there’s a tragic love story in Zatoichi and the Chess Expert. And it’s Kaneko Iwasaki—and not Shintaro Katsu—who gives it to us.