Directed by Kazuo Ikehiro, written by Shozaburo Asai and Akikazu Ota.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Shogo Shimada (Boss Chuji, one of the few honorable yakuza in the series), Kenzaburo Jo (Jushiro, a calm and vicious ronin), Mikiko Tsubouchi (Ochiyo, a woman whom Zatoichi has obliquely wronged), and Machiko Hasegawa (Ogin, a lovely outlaw who’s so sly that I’m not sure she’s actually named in the film)
Well, hush my mouth. After all of my disappointment with Zatoichi on the Road’s formulaic tedium, I never would have expected that the very next film would overturn so many of the series’ conceits. But Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, under the direction of Kazuo Ikehiro, flips the script, like a beautiful Pelé goal bending the air. From the way the plot moves to the visual flourishes, the series gets born anew.
The visual invention starts, well, with the start. Six films in, I’ve gotten used to the cold open sequence—Zatoichi flashing his sword, samurai slain, in a moment that has nothing to do with the rest of the film, in the same way that the covers of Marvel comic books often had little to do with what’s inside.
Zatoichi enters a frame of otherwise complete blackness, looking for all the world like someone’s lost Jewish grandmother. He periodically blows a shrill whistle into the void, and then listens. I understood what was happening intuitively before I got it logically, which is the best way. The blind man’s using the sound, and the way it reverberates, to “show” him where his enemies are. Sure enough, human figures emerge from the blackness, lit as if from within, and the battling commences. These scenes chop and dice themselves like the swordplay itself, feeling like discrete fragments in space.
Usually, the Zatoichi films are so well situated in Edo-era Japan that I feel like I could enter this world just by stepping into the screen. Not so for Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold. This is self-consciously stagy, very much stylized. Its director, Kazuo Ikehiro, has style to spare, and ain’t afraid to show it.
It’s only after this riveting set of little fights that we enter something like a natural, lived-in environment. Ikehiro and crew lose the staginess after this point, instead drawing constant attention to cinematic—as opposed to naturalistic—qualities. The colors bleed and quiver. The film stock is sometimes so grainy that I could almost rub its grit between my thumb and forefinger. The camera pans as it zooms in and out—Robert Altman’s old trick of his 1970s films. The transitions between scenes are abrupt enough to disrupt my sense of continuity—sometimes it takes a minute for me to reorient myself. Zatoichi flashes back to a moment two years previously, when he killed a man he shouldn’t have. I’m startled to realize that, six movies in, I believe this is the first flashback of the entire series. (How is it that such a hoary filmic method has been avoided in the Zatoichis until now?) The whip pans that jell together scenes last so long that they almost become mini-scenes in themselves, forming abstract patterns.
Everything’s earthier, more intimate, and vicious in Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold. Gone, for the most part, are the broad vistas and clinically precise compositions. Instead, we feel crowded in, part of the frenzies and melees. This farming village has been born under punches, and the filmmakers want you to feel the desperation and bruises.
It’s thrilling and sickening all at once to see blood, red and thick and spurting, for the first time in the series. Ikehiro reminds you, the viewer, that swords actually cut into flesh, that people (lots of people) die as a result of Zato’s prowess. Speaking of, our hero gets beat up pretty good—also a first for the series—on multiple occasions.
There’s torture, and people getting branded by hot irons (don’t worry—you don’t see it but you feel it). The final battle, between Zatoichi and a particularly diabolical ronin (played by Kenzaburo Jo, Shintaru Katsu’s real-life brother), involves a whip, horse trampling, and the blind swordsman being dragged through the dirt like a rattling can. Almost all the fighting takes place in close quarters, in dense forests instead of open valleys, in cluttered houses rather than broad streetways. The claustrophobia seeps into the film’s soul.
It’s not just arty experimentation. The villagers are hemmed in by three years of terrible drought, by a debt of thousand ryo, by a corrupt magistrate who fucking steals that tax payment and then blames the villagers for it, forcing them to pay it twice. Money woes are crushing the spirits of these farmers. They feel the absence of choices, of a looming lifetime of being captive to what and who you owe. The visual captures the emotional.
I had to pause the movie at a couple of moments, as I was reminded too forcefully of my bad old days. I was reminded of overdrafting the checking account; of paying $1000 on a credit-card bill one month only to find next month that I’d whittled down the debt by only $180 because I hadn’t been able to pay the minimum, and the penalties had eaten away at what I paid; of timing the mailing of bills and postdating checks; of getting a monthly paycheck and knowing where half of it was going by the end of that day, and the crushing feeling of knowing on the 3rd of the month that I had $600 to make it till the 30th; of the free-floating resentment of a friend’s easy ability to pay for Chinese food and beer on a Friday night while I calculated if that six-pack meant I couldn’t buy a full tank of gas a week from then; of hoping that a treasured first edition would sell on Amazon or eBay, and the bitterness of shipping out that sold book (given to me by a dear ex-girlfriend) to some anonymous person in Minneapolis who didn’t know the book’s history with me; of the free-floating anxiety that gave me stomachaches and migraines throughout the second half of every month, and the way that anxiety curdled into anger at myself, and then threw at my friends, my ex-wife, my family. Severe debt made me incapable of seeing beyond it, of seeing the world in terms of anything but that crushing weight. It made me mean, sad, and unknowable to myself, unable to see the good in myself or anyone else, and unable to see a way out.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a film that visually and tonally evoked the angry, sad powerlessness of major debt—that tunnel vision—the way that Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold does. It’s fitting that the film starts in darkness, with a stage in which everyone is as blind as Zatoichi. That lack of money, and the woe in spirit that it can cause, creates a stinginess of heart here that Zatoichi—and the filmmakers—have to cut through.
And it does. Chest of Gold begins, essentially, once Zatoichi enters a farming village erupting into celebration. Over three hard, stingy, mean-hearted years, the town’s eked together enough to pay its taxes to the magistrate. So, it’s celebrating. Drums, music, sake, bawdy songs, backslapping, laughter, and greenness are in the air. Even Zatoichi drops a beat, and does a jig. I remember when, two years ago, I paid off my car note, freeing up $310 bucks a month. I felt like a lavender wind blew into my lungs, like I was breathing in lavender and mint for the first time ever, when in truth I had just forgotten the perfumed air, and that perfume is always there amidst the shit. In the early moments of Chest of Gold, I saw what I felt. When that tax money is cruelly stolen, plunging the farmers back into even worse trouble than before, I remembered the way my throat sank into my pelvis whenever I realized that I had forgotten to write down an automated payment in my checkbook, meaning my balance was off, meaning I’d overdraft again, meaning that buying a Snickers bar might cause a twinge of fear. When the villagers sink into despondency and blame and scapegoating poor Zatoichi, I remember things I said to myself and others that I would rather forget but know that I shouldn’t. I need those reminders of myself like tattoos, ever-present scars of my transgressions.
Scars are important here. Zatoichi’s enemy here, Jushiro, sports a scar across the right side of his face. Zato is bloodied and bruised throughout. But flesh holds beauty as well as damage. And there’s a lot more flesh than abstraction in Chest of Gold. Sex was hinted at in The Tale of Zatoichi Continues but things get actually steamy here.
Even menace holds a glow, as with the paper lanterns of marauders in the forest.
The void is always there, of course. The abyss, the blackness, the seeping indigo. But there is always also a glow in the void, a way beyond what we think of as oppressive reality—which really may be just poor vision caused by our mud-colored glasses. The villagers find a way out of their mess by learning to band together, learning to trust in their fellow men and women, and learning to heed an outsider’s (Zatoichi’s) perspective rather than their own blinkered miseries. But to see the light, they have to recognize the darkness, and that—more importantly—the darkness comes not just from within but from without, and the “without” can be cut through, and cut off.