Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)
Directed by Kihachi Okamoto

Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo
Zatoichi to Yojinbo
Starring Shintaro Katsu (Ichi), Toshiro Mifune (Sasa), Ayako Wakao (Umeno), Osamu Takizawa (Eboshiya), Masakane Yonekura (Boss Masagoro), Shin Kishida (Kuzuryu), Kanjuro Arashi (Hyoroku), Toshiyuki Hosokawa (Sanyemon), Shigeru Koyama (Jinzaburo Wakiya), Gen Kimura
Screenplay by Kihachi Okamoto
Cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa
Music by Akira Ifukube

Toho Company/Katsu Productions, 115 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

According to legend, Shintaro Katsu and Toshiro Mifune struck a deal to co-star in a pair of films made by their newly formed production companies at the start of the 1970s. Mifune produced the fine all-star epic Incident at Blood Pass, while Katsu naturally chose to cast Mifune as his foil in a Zatoichi movie, facilitated by the series' move from Daiei Studios to Mifune's Toho stomping grounds. Both films pose as unofficial revivals of Mifune's Yojimbo character, and this one shamelessly name-checks the 1961 classic in its title -- a Toho marketing ploy that surely must have pissed off Kurosawa big time.

Katsu put the series on hold for 1969 to star in Tenchu and other projects (and those other roles may account for his return to the shaved head look for the first time since the first two films, which actually is the proper hairstyle for a blind masseuer). So he pulled out all the stops to make this a massive Zatoichi spectacular, bringing on prestige director Kihachi Okamoto and A-list actress Ayako Wakao. The series' best cinematographer and music composer are on hand, and the running time clocks in at nearly two hours instead of the customary 90 minutes. On paper, it sounds like a masterpiece, as two major icons of Japanese popular culture collide. Unfortunately, the finished product turned out to be a disappointment rather than the chambara lover's dream we might have hoped for.

The story concerns Ichi's return to a village remembers as a haven of peace and tranquility, but of course sinister corruption has since taken root. There's a convoluted conspiracy to embezzle gold from a government mint, but hell, let's be honest. It's all just a flimsy excuse for us to see "Zatoichi" tangling with "Yojimbo." Like Frankenstein meets Dracula, or King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Mystery Ronin: Well, duh. Our celebrity guest star created the definitive ronin antihero, and he's at it again here, shrouded in plenty of mystery. Some viewers might be under the impression that Mifune's character in this movie is in fact Sanjuro from Yojimbo, and there certainly are similar mannerisms. But there's no doubt that this yojimbo called Sasa is a different guy, mainly because of revelations about Sasa's professional background. And he's also not nearly as clever as Sanjuro. In addition, late in the film we get a second mystery ronin figure named Kuzuryu who has connections to Sasa's past. Kuzuryu uses a pistol as his secret weapon, making him analogous to the Tatsuya Nakadai character from Yojimbo.

Ichi's Lady Friends: Umeno is a young woman Ichi fondly recalls from his previous stay in the village, but now she's fallen into prostitution and pretends she doesn't recognize our hero. She serves as the love interest for Sasa, but doesn't really doesn't have enough plot importance to make the role worthy of Ayako Wakao.

Dice Game: When Ichi needs to raise some money, he goes to Boss Masagoro's gambling den and amasses big winnings. Masagoro comes over to challenge Ichi one-on-one, and the blind man pulls his usual trick of rolling the dice outside the cup, unperturbed at having to defend himself against a would-be assassin in the middle of his scam.

Ichi's Amazing Feats: Ichi slices a gold ryo coin that Sasa tosses at him, demonstrating how the coins are being minted with debased metals that are easier to break than ryo should be. Later Ichi tosses up some bitter persimmons and seemingly misses when he whacks at them, but when touched the fruit falls apart in neat slices.

Sadly, Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo just isn't a very good Zatoichi movie. It's a classic case of everybody trying too hard and crushing the simplicity and elegance of a beloved series by going overboard. There were probably too many big egos spoiling the soup, and even though Kihachi Okamoto was a master of Japanese cinema, it seems like he didn't really get Zatoichi. Okamoto had a remarkable flair for comedy with a satirical edge, and Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo feels more like a parody of the Katsu and Mifune's iconic personae than an actual Zatoichi movie. Ichi seems too witless in this story, instead of exhibiting his typical shrewd perception and judgment, and the Sasa character is awfully stupid in consideration of who he is revealed to be. If you want to see a good movie starring Mifune and Katsu, try Incident at Blood Pass instead.

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