Fond memories draw blind swordsman, Zatoichi (Shintarô Katsu) back to his home village, but upon arrival he finds things much changed. The village elder is a broken man, violent gangs roam the streets, and Zatoichi’s childhood sweetheart, Umeno (Ayako Wakao) has become a prostitute. Control of the village is split between scheming merchant Eboshiya and his rebellious son Masagoro, who has hired a secret weapon: the legendary, roving ronin Yojimbo (Toshirô Mifune). As both heroes squabble and size each other up, rumours that a huge stash of gold is hidden somewhere in the village prompt Eboshiya’s younger son to summon pistol-packing, contract killer Kuzuryuu. But, as Zatoichi discovers, no-one is quite what they seem.
This samurai clash of the titans came about because of a pact superstars Shintarô Katsu and Toshirô Mifune made to guest-appear in each other’s pet projects. Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo was the twentieth movie featuring Katsu as the blind gambler/masseur/swordsman (with six more and a long-running TV series still to come), while Mifune revived here the gruff, anti-hero he first played in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962). The teaming of the two biggest stars in Japanese cinema drew some equally high profile collaborators, including composer Akira Ifukube (who contributes a sparse, haunting score) and writer-director Kihachi Okamoto. Okamoto is an interesting, eclectic filmmaker. Known internationally for his samurai movies (many starring Toshirô Mifune), war epic The Battle of Okinawa (1971) is commonly considered his masterpiece, but he dabbled in crime-thrillers, several wildly eccentric sci-fi films, and anime (including the feature-version of cult-kiddie-classic Battle of the Planets (1978)). His last work, the musical/comedy/samurai film, Vengeance For Sale (2001) was regrettably overshadowed by Beat Takeshi’s similar Zatoichi (2003) revival.
Okamoto’s over-elaborate plot is diffuse with symbolism (water flows between the heroes, representing division; the village elder carves statues of Jizo, the Buddha of healing, that hold an ironic surprise) and sometimes hard to follow. Anyone expecting an all-action fest may feel disappointed, but in keeping with most Zatoichi movies this is more of a character-driven, mood piece punctuated by some amusing gags. An imprisoned Zatoichi and fellow inmate fake poisoned death spasms until the prison guard lets slip they’re free to go. Yojimbo deliberately misdirects the blind man so he falls off a ledge (“Thank you, kind sir - arrgh!!”). The squeaky voice Mifune repeatedly adopts to mock Masagoro’s cry of “sensei!” is especially funny.
The script includes interesting elements like the conflict between father and son, and most of the major characters concealing their true intentions, but the real joy lies in watching Zatoichi and Yojimbo circle each other like a couple of wary tigers. The film offers a neat contrast between Mifune’s swaggering bravado and Katsu’s Chaplinesque pathos, captured in a neat bit where Yojimbo stabs Zatoichi only for him to catch the blade in its sheath. Okamoto evokes a streak of middle-aged melancholy akin to a late period western, with both heroes bonding over drinks and their shared love for whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, Umeno, but also the mutual sense of decency that sets them apart from the hired thugs. Respected actress Ayako Wakao essays a strong, Hawksian heroine, bold enough to stand up to their macho bluster.
Events culminate in a wild finale with swordsmen dropping like flies as Mifune and Katsu slash their way through samurai hordes with wild abandon. Son betrays father. The wounded stagger like zombies. It’s all quite haunting and atmospheric. The following year, Mifune served as producer for his final appearance as Yojimbo, with Katsu guest-starring as a doctor, in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Ambush: Incident At Blood Pass (1970).
Veteran Japanese director who used his experiences during the Second World War to shape the outlook and tone of numerous anti-war films, such as 1959's Dokuritsugu Gurentai, and 1968's Nikudan (aka The Human Bullet). Okamoto also directed gangster pictures such as The Age of Assassins (1967) and samurai epics like Sword of Doom (1966) and Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970), frequently casting the great Japanese actor Toshirô Mifune. Okamoto slowed his work-rate afterwards, but still continued to direct for TV and cinema until his death.