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


25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #8 Fight, Zatoichi, Fight! (1964)

Writer/Director: Seiji Hoshikawa (2nd film), Tetsuro Yoshida, & Masaatsu Matusmura/Kenji Misumi (2nd film)

Summary: This may be one of the more memorable entries in the series for me at this point based almost solely on the film’s core concept. How would a skilled killer handle caring for a small child- especially when he’s being pursued by the most determined adversaries he’s faced so far? Far from star Shintaro Katsu’s brother’s work in the ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ series that would come to be in the next decade, Katsu’s pairing of killer and baby is more sly, tongue in cheek, and far less brutally violent in its depiction. The setup here is that a well paid group of assassins are after Zatoichi throughout the film, initially he’s hidden from them within a group of blind men making a pilgrimage. After awhile he’s approached by a pair of palanquin (a wheelless, covered, box carried by two or more people designed for transport) bearers and they offer him a ride through the countryside. His pursuers see him enter the palanquin and they sneak off for an ambush. A short way down the road the bearers stop to investigate a body lying in the road, which just so happens to be a woman with a baby who had just collapsed from exhaustion. Concerned, Zatoichi insists that she take the palanquin and within moments they’re off. However, they don’t get far before the assassins tracking Zatoichi attack the palanquin and accidentally kill the mother. Once Zatoichi finds out he, the bearers, and the local village headmen who arrived shortly afterwards all go to the nearby town to discuss what to do. The mother’s travel documents reveal that she was heading home to her husband who ran a silkworm farm in a village far from there. Zatoichi offers to bring the child there himself as he feels responsible for the death.

Just outside of town the assassins make their first real attempt at killing Ichi. He swiftly kills the first attacker and the rest begin retreating as he makes the connection and accuses them of killing the mother, he offers to fight them all once he has delivered the child to it’s father, but they deny his offer stating “The Monju clan does not give up once it has accepted payment“. Throughout the journey the Monju clan attacks Zatoichi one by one, recruiting other gangs they meet on the road in an attempt to swarm and overwhelm him. There’s a few women Zatoichi meets on the road, one he pays for a night and asks her to watch over the kid so he can get some sleep, another initially uses him as cover after (rightly) being accused of stealing, to which Zatoichi plays along and in turn asks her to travel with him and help with the child. Eventually they reach the father’s village, and he denies ever having a child or a previous wife as he’s due to be married to the daughter of the local Yakuza boss. The leader of the Monju clan is all that remains by this point and, as Zatoichi ponders what to do with the child, the assassin leader recruits the father stating that he know Zatoichi’s weakness and persuades the silkworm farmer to try and ‘make a name for himself’. At the local temple, a kindred Monk offers to raise the child, and right when Zatoichi had begun to consider what his life would be like if he raised the child himself, the Monju leader and the father arrive for a fight. Zatoichi bests them, even though he’s burned several times with their torches. When Zatoichi has the upper hand he again asks the father if the child is his, he finally breaks and admits that it is his and that he had sent away the mother not as collateral, but to simply be rid of her. He swears to raise his child to be better than him, but as Zatoichi turns away, he lunges and Zatoichi kills him in defense. Thus, Zatoichi realizes he cannot accept fatherhood if he’s always sought after in this way, and he gives the child to the monks, slinking off down the road as the blind men’s pilgrimage passes him once more.

My favorite part: Honestly, after having watched all six ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ films and knowing that both stars Shintaro Katsu and Tomisaburo Wakayama are brothers in real life, AND that director of this film, Kenji Misumi, also directed four of the six ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ movies- to be fair, the connections are too wild to ignore. I particularly loved this quirky entry in the blind swordsman’s saga as an ‘alpha‘ run for the future concept. I mean, how many times have you seen a gambling scene where a baby is thrown through the air before some supernaturally quick swordplay is performed to prove a point without harming the baby?

Why it’s great: This film in the series may ultimately still end in the bittersweet sadness that characterizes most of the finales, but it’s chock-full of the series best humor thus far. From accidentally having the baby pee in the faces of sumo wrestlers to killing men while changing the baby’s diaper- ‘Fight, Zatoichi, Fight!’ is a cheeky good time with a simple, fun, concept.

Final Score: 1 Zatoichi & 1 Baby