film

25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #20 Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)

Writer/Director: Kihachi Okamoto & Tetsuro Yoshida (2nd film)/ Kihachi Okamoto

Summary: “Sword of Doom” director Kihachi Okamoto brings his stylistic and nuanced touch to this excellent crossover. Heavily inspired by Westerns, crafting heavily satirical and critical Samurai films, and even a few musicals, the man has an incredibly varied background in cinema and he brought it all for this one. Opening with an eerily beautiful scene, the frame filled with blowing reeds and rain, Zatoichi “watches” a group of men kill a man amidst the flurry, and fury, of nature. He’s grown tired of “living in Hell” as he puts it, and decides to head home for the first time in the series. The blind swordsman only wishes to hear the flowing stream and smell the plum blossoms, he longs for the days of spring and the familiarity of home. However, when he arrives the cinematography wisely pairs Zatoichi’s returning nostalgia with death and troublesome things seeping into the frame. As he crosses the river, a dead body floats in a pool almost outside of the frame, and when he enters the perimeter, he can sense the familiar sounds and smells of home but everything else about the situation clues the audience into something being not quite right, that something foul is afoot. Zatoichi follows the habitual sounds of the local blacksmith, and stops to see how he’s doing. Surprised by Ichi’s unannounced visit, the metallurgist is clearly not alright by judging his facial expressions, the rhythm of his work, and by what he was making. Things have changed drastically since Zatoichi’s departure years ago, when he goes looking for the village headman, Hyoroku (Kanjuro Arashi), he’s met with confusion, “Ooooh, you must mean the old man that makes coffins“. Years ago the village and surrounding areas were hit by a famine, and their town had survived the worst of it- until the surrounding areas heard word of their large stockpile of rations. The town was ravaged for it’s goods and in the aftermath the headman had no choice but to abdicate his power to the Yakuza gang that came in and provided the town with structure. Even if that structure was a slow power-hungry virus that would change the very nature of the town for the worst. By the time Zatoichi returns, the town is at a boiling point, tensions are high as a feud between the new Yakuza headman and his two sons simmers. There’s also a rumor being spread around that a stash of gold is hidden somewhere in the town, and it only fuels the greed of the Yakuza involved. Which is the perfect setup for involving one of the best characters in all of Samurai cinema, the gruff, sly, and blustery Yojimbo as performed by Toshiro Mifune. Granted, in this film he goes by the name Daisaku Sasa, but his name has never really mattered in any of his past appearances anyways, though a couple of times his legendary alias of “Yojimbo” is only spoken in half utterances and never fully said aloud. I appreciated the notion of keeping the sense of mystery surrounding Mifune’s character intact. Yojimbo was utilized incredibly well in this film, everything about his personality, tactics, and scheming ways were perfectly executed, and I loved every second he was onscreen with Shintaro Katsu’s Zatoichi. The film goes to great lengths to milk every possible interaction between the two characters and to show their differences and similarities. I don’t even want to go into great specific details about the plot here because it was a true delight and the film that I recommend most so far in this series. Though I would suggest watching at least a few Zatoichi films and Yojimbo or Sanjuro as well to get an idea of who these characters are before indulging in this one, otherwise there’s a lot of subtlety that you could miss out on.

My favorite part: The whole damn thing. Upon seeing the later titles of the film series when I started this endeavor, “Zatoichi meets Yojimbo” was easily my most anticipated film of the series and it did not disappoint. I’ve seen both “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro” before any Zatoichi films, so the character’s introduction to Zatoichi had the intended effect on me, as I imagine it to be. This film feels the most epic, with its two hour runtime and large scale battles with an insane number of participants, this film had everything I could have imagined that would be needed or wanted with these two legendary titans of the screen meeting. Toshiro Mifune was, as expected, pitch perfect as the “two-bit samurai” driven by his ever present thirst for money. I loved the way the world of the Zatoichi films responded to Mifune’s bombastic outbursts. Several characters are shocked by the gruff ronin’s volume and seemed annoyed by his shouting, “What are you shouting about?”, “Why so loud?” I loved every bit of clashing that came from the two opposing personalities and the fanfare that comes with each interaction. For instance, Zatoichi is in the process of giving a massage on the local boss when they’re interrupted by Mifune’s shouting three floors beneath them. Both characters were gathering information, but their respective styles in doing so couldn’t be more opposite. You get every type of interaction between the two icons that you could want: They clash based on opposing ideologies, they team up to investigate and protect a mutual friend, they even have a duel that essentially ends in a draw in the third act, and they end the film with a mutual respect for each other despite their obvious differences.

Why it’s great:I feel as though I cannot further explain why this film worked so well for me, without getting into an incredibly deep dive into an analysis of the film itself, however, that being said I have to take a moment to talk about the look of the film as it drastically stands out from the visuals of past films. The lighting and color palette make many of the scenes feel as though they were ripped from renaissance period art. It’s a darkly lit film that’s comfortable living in the shadows, and the production heavily favors earthy browns, muted blues, the color of the film seems to be heavily inspired by nature. There’s excellent composition of the frame in most (if not all) of the shots in the film. Anyhow, if you’re so inclined, I highly recommend this one!

Final Score: 2 Swordsmen of Legend

film

Old School Review: “The Sword of Doom” (1966)

Written by Shinobu Hashimoto and directed by Kihachi Okamoto, “The Sword of Doom” is an existential samurai film that dwells on a titular character that isn’t exactly altruistic, to say the least. This is, essentially, the story of a villain. A Samurai with a unique style, long lost from any traces of morality, Ryunosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) spends the majority of the film brooding and sulking about until he bursts with a flurry of violence. Don’t fret, this film most assuredly lives up to its pulpy title. Ryunosuke appears suddenly in the opening scene when he happens upon an old man praying for death so that his granddaughter would not be burdened by his increasing fragility. He swiftly grants his elder’s wish and moves along nonchalantly. Our protagonist is almost more of a singular force set upon the world than a human character, a skilled swordsman with a thirst for violence.

Early on in the film Ryunosuke’s father, who disproves of the psychopathic Samurai’s technique, pleads with his son to purposefully lose an upcoming fencing match. His opponent’s wife, Hama (Michiyo Aratama) also urges him to concede and throw the match against Bunnojo Utsuki (Ichirô Nakatani). Ryunosuke agrees on one condition, that Hama sleep with him before the match. Hama agrees, though Bunnojo discovers the infidelity before the match’s start and has made the clash a far more personal affair. After the fight is considered a draw Bunnojo lunges for a kill shot, but Ryunosuke’s entire style leans into this tactic, lying in wait for his opponent to strike with his eyes and sword leisurely cast aside. After Bunnojo is slain Ryunosuke and Hama are run out of town and the film cuts to an unspecified jump in time.

A few years later, roughly, Hama and Ryunosuke are married and considering returning to their village. Ryunosuke’s a sake drunk and Hama is resentful of her husband and her situation in life. Ryunosuke hears of rumors that Bunnojo’s brother Hyoma (Yûzô Kayama) is seeking vengeance, so he does a bit of research. What he doesn’t know is that his father urged Hyoma to train under master fencer Shimada (Toshirô Mifune), to wipe the shame of Ryunosuke’s actions from his family’s name. I won’t go into an excessive amount of detail on every plot point, but that is the skeletal framework essential to understanding the film. “The Sword of Doom” harbors a dense and nightmarish atmosphere that is used to great effect. The cinematography and blocking of the actors is magnificient and alleviates any stress that the admittedly convulted plot contributes to. The remainder of the film has some of the best Samurai action I’ve seen in films (so far), and Ryunosuke’s descent into existential paranoia is an excellent departure from his stoic confidence earlier in the film. Though my favorite scene of the whole film is when Ryunosuke witnesses Shimada’s expertise in killing an onslaught of attackers on a wintry night- his skill is enough to shake the soul of the morally corrupt Samurai. Aside from the Kurosawa films in which these two actors frequently come to blows, “The Sword of Doom” takes a different route, the two iconic Samurai actors never cross blades. Though Ryunosuke is profoundly affected by seeing the superior’s swordsman’s technique in action.

This was the final Criterion Collection film that I picked up through a sale they had recently, and it was worth every penny. The Criterion Collection does an excellent job with their film restoration. They clean up the audio and frames of film of any static or dirt and allow the full vision of the original filmmakers to shine through. Criterion commits to a commendable standard of quality that I personally highly value and I cannot recommend them enough. If you’re in need of a good Samurai film and have exhausted the library of Kurosawa, then this is a fine film to sate your katana brandishing needs.

Final Score: Scores of fallen foe