Clash of the Titans
The fact that this movie exists, and that it is actually good, is a rare surprise. When two characters are as popular and famous as Katsu Shintaro’s Zatoichi and Mifune Toshiro’s Yojimbo, the temptation to throw them together into a single film is often too great to resist for movie studios, but the results are usually a disaster. They are gimmick films at their hearts.
Fortunately, this one was done right. The 20th installment in the 26 film Zatoichi series, “Zatoichi meets Yojimbo” (original title “Zatoichi to Yojimbo”, meaning “Zatoichi and Yojimbo”, the “meets” was thrown in there for Western audiences), teams up two of the titans of the samurai genre, three if you count director Okamoto Kihachi (The Sword of Doom). There is an easy comradeship between them, and Mifune’s star power does not overshadow Katsu’s lead.
The story is pretty typical of the series. Zatoichi is weary; he has broken his famous cane sword, and seeks refuge in a village he passed through some years ago. In a nod to the original Yojimbo film, the once-peaceful village finds itself in the middle of a gang war where two rivals fight for control of the town. Zatoichi’s appearance makes him a wildcard, as both sides bid for his service. But then into town comes a rough and ready character and apparent drunkard willing to also sell his sword to service. The two play off of each other, circling around for the inevitable battle. Of course, there is more to the story: The beautiful prostitute Umeno (Wakao Ayaka Red Angel, Manji) is capturing both rival’s hearts, a secret stockpile of gold is to be found and fought for, and a third rival comes to town in the form of Kishida Shin (Kill! ) as gunslinger Kuzuryu, the nine-headed dragon.
Admittedly, the plot isn’t going to win any major awards, but one doesn’t really watch the Zatoichi series for the plot. They watch it for Katsu’s easy charm, and the fun familiarity that only comes with a long-running series. Mifune’s drunken swaggering is a great counterbalance to the Zatoichi character. This isn’t exactly the same character from Kurosawa’s classic films, but close enough. There is one nice in-joke, where he is referred to as Shijuro (forty-year-old), setting the character ten years after Sanjuro (meaning thirty-year-old). The showdown between the two isn’t quite as dynamic as I was hoping for, but the ending was very satisfying.
Mifune and Katsu would meet again just a few months later after the release of “Zatoichi meets Yojimbo”, in the Inagaki Hiroshi flick Incident at Blood Pass. Mifune would again reprise the Yojimbo character for this film, although Katsu was a mountain-bandit Gentetsu. Mifune clearly was not opposed to a good team-up, as he would meet The Magnificent Seven actor Charles Bronson a year later in the Western Red Sun.