By 1964, the relatively modest Zatoichi series had become a cult sensation equal to the more austere chambara productions of the era from the likes of the “Emperor” Akira Kurosawa himself. Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold (No. 6 of 27) was the series coming out party so to speak as it took the franchise to the next level with radically improved direction and photography. Shintaro Katsu’s portrayal of Zatoichi, an already likeable character, really comes into his own with great professional swordsmanship precision, excitement and that venerated undercurrent of righteously fighting for the underdog.
The James Bond films must have copied the opening of this movie where our hero is surrounded in the inky darkness of the night as he fights off numerous swordsmen. The viewer is treated to seeing some of Ichi’s best moves in the first few minutes of the film. It is clear that the star is astonishing in his ability to dodge and weave through attackers while swinging and thrusting is blade with extreme precision all in wide and unedited shots. The sixth film in the series also brings increased talents behind the camera as the lens masters for Rashomon, Yojimbo and several other famous samurai movies take over the filming conveying a polished and creative look unlike we see in any of the previous pictures.
In the Chest of Gold, Ichi becomes more of the action hero that in earlier episodes. At the end of the movie, Ichi’s wasted a caravan of guards, six of whom carry rifles and another force of soldiers he dispatched while carrying a small child on his back. We are not totally left with this new blind superhero as he is up to many of his old tricks like splitting a coin in half in mid-air, jams on both flute and drums during a village celebration, and impishly shares a bath with a well-endowed female spy.
Zatoichi returns to a village to pay respects to a local he mistakenly killed some time ago. The dead man’s sister trails him throughout the story, at first looking for a chance to get revenge. She gets an opportunity when the villagers’ tax payment of 1000 ryo is stolen and she points out that Zatoichi was seen near the chest of money. In truth he was sitting on it, but was unaware of what it was – being blind and all. The villagers cry for blood and Ichi vows to get it back. The trail leads to a Robin Hood-like criminal named Chuji Kunisada (Shogo Shimada) hiding out with his few starving followers on a nearby mountain. Although Chuji has repeatedly aided the villagers, they suspect this “gangster” of stealing the taxes. After a Mexican standoff between the men, Ichi deduces that the real criminal turns out to be Monji, the corrupt magistrate that demanded the tax payment from the villagers. As Monji’s soldiers close in on Chuji’s shabby hideout, Ichi diverts the soldiers while fighting to protect a small boy in his care. Ichi finally faces Monji and Jushiro (Tomisaburo Wakayama); the magistrate’s former hired samurai and a master of the bullwhip.
And the best is saved for last. Having overcome all previous obstacles, Ichi takes on the film’s fiercest criminal fighter, Jushiro. Sporting a facial scar and a bullwhip, he shows up early in the film as one of the hired men who steals the tax money. He teases the viewer by nonchalantly dispatching his enemies with murderous precision, yet steering clear of Ichi. As all great antagonists would do, Jushiro distances himself from the petty desires of his former master to focus on his need to see a great swordsman like Ichi cut down by his own hand. Tomisaburo Wakayama, who plays Jushiro, is the real life brother of Shintaro Katsu, so the final duel is in one sense a family affair. Tomisaburo had also played Ichi’s brother in Zatoichi 2, but any chambara fan knows him as Ogami Itto, the star of the Lone Wolf and Cub series we previously reviewed. It’s no surprise that this fight is one of the best in the series. Initially, Jushiro is on horseback and wielding his whip, leaving the blind swordsman at a serious disadvantage. But that soon changes as our hero, though seriously wounded, lives to fight another day.
As mentioned before there is some continuity throughout all of the Zatoichi films such as Ichi’s ability to sniff out gambling cheaters, his amiable relationship with comically unattractive women, and his love for song, drinking and dance. If you’re already familiar with the character, one of the most memorable scenes is when Shintaro dances as he approaches the villager’s celebration before taking up the drums himself.
There is little left to say, except that Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold is really the springboard for what is the longest running and what is arguably the best film franchise to date. I suggest that you watch some previous films first so you can fully appreciate the character and increased quality of this film.