Today I watched Kihachi Okamoto’s Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)
The crossover is one of those many tried and true methods of freshening up a franchise for at least one installment. In this case Zatoichi comes face to face with, well not Sanjuro but it is Toshiro Mifune doing a riff on that classic character. Mifune actually did quite a few of these appearances in numerous films that wanted that character but could not acquire the rights to the name. The story focuses on Zatoichi returning to his hometown (a very different hometown than in other appearances) only to find it horribly run down and consumed by violence and greed. The Yojimbo is also hanging around and since the film is not told from his perspective we get a view of just how shifty he really is to those around him.
Kihachi Okamoto is known for his very dark and nihilistic samurai films and this movie continues this trend towards darkness. This film has a very harsh look to it, with intense lighting and contrast blending with dilapidated surroundings. Characters make multiple refrences to this being hell and the visual language Okamoto uses certainly speaks to this. It is bleak and violent in a way that is distinctly Okamoto, unlike most other entries in this series there are few rays of light and Zatoichi himself is even demystified by key scenes of weakness.
Of course the draw here is to see two legends of Japanese cinema spar with words and swords and it most certainly does not disappoint. Shintaro Katus and Toshiro Mifune are both at the top of their game and when they come together it is pure cinema magic. The film does an incredible job of showcasing how each of them approaches a situation; they may both be anti-heroes but they could not be more different. While Zatoichi is more humane, caring, and perhaps a little naive, the Yojimbo is brash, violent, yet darkly cunning and able to prey on people’s negativity.
Watching these two Jidaigeki heavyweights come together is an absolute delight. That the film is also expertly directed and quite fresh in it’s bleak framing helps make this more than a cynical cash grab. While it is at it’s core fan service, this film never stops being thoughtful and expressive in the way that has made the Zatoichi franchise great. This film is a perfect example of taking a financially driven movie idea and turning it into a real powerhouse of a film. 5/5