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Review: Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo-Zatôichi to Yôjinbô (1970)

Directed by: Kihachi Okamoto | 116 minutes | action, drama, adventure | Actors: Shintaro Katsu, Toshiro Mifune, Osamu Takizawa, Ayako Wakao, Shin Kishida, Kanjuro Arashi, Toshiyuki Hosokawa, Shigeru Koyama, Minoru Terada, Hideo Sunazuka, Daigo Kusano, Fujio Tsuneda, Gen Kimura, Hiroshi Tanaka, Hiroto Kimura

Apparently the books and stories of Kan Shimozawade were excellent for filming, because from 1931 onwards more than a hundred ended up on the silver screen. The film series of “Zatoichi”, after his eponymous stories, became one of the most popular in Japanese film history. Between 1962 and 1974 no less than 25 films were filmed, that is more than two films a year (that could not be done nowadays!). But that’s not all. After 1974, “Zatoichi” became a television series with a hundred episodes, all directed by himself. One last film was made in 1989, which Shintaro also directed.

What is special about this film series is that the films, despite their large quantity and low budgets, have a high quality. The action is always nicely staged and dosed and the stories are mostly well put together, with credible characters that are never one-dimensional. Leading actor Shintarô Katsu, who grew into a Japanese folk hero with his role as Zatoichi, portrays his role with gusto every time, also here.

“Zatoichi meets Yojimbo” is the twentieth “Zatoichi” film adaptation, a late one, but certainly not a bad one. On the contrary, it is one of the better. Also thanks to another excellent role by as Yojimbo (bodyguard), the character with which he caused a furore in the film of the same name “Yojimbo” (Akira Kurosawa, 1961) and its sequel “Sanjuro” (Akira Kurosawa, 1962). Kan Shimozawa has chosen to make his character a little harder, which makes him much less likeable than in the aforementioned Kurosawa films. He drinks more, swears louder, is even more unreliable, is even more money-hungry and has even less respect for others. A lot less sympathetic, but no less interesting. An interesting fact is his love for a woman, which he actually cannot win over because of his own stubbornness, or so he thinks. In a way, Shimozawa eventually made him a bit more of a loser, who himself doesn’t realize how he’s throwing his life away. This role illustrates well the layering that characterizes the characters from the “Zatoichi” series.

In the beginning of the film, Zatoichi is chased by a bunch of bandits who are after his life. It rains, it storms and then his sword also breaks in a fight. After taking out his last assailant, he sighs, “Now I have blood on my hands again,” wiping his hands clean. These kinds of ambiguous comments are more common in the film, where in addition to the many and sometimes harsh violence, there is also a lot of humor. “I am fed up with this hell,” he continues, hearing in the background how corpse pickers rob the dead. And immediately we find ourselves back in his harsh world, in which people have little to do for each other and the sword seems to offer the only salvation, but at the same time is the biggest problem.

Zatoichi decides to return to a nearby village, with its murmuring streams and the scent of plum blossom, which he left peacefully there three years earlier. When he arrives in the village, it appears to have fallen into the hands of fighting yakuzi (gangsters). Yojimbo is one of their bodyguards. Soon the two sword-fighting grandmasters come face to face with each other. Mutual respect prevents one from directly slaughtering the other. But it is clear that sooner or later it will come to a real showdown.

In the first scenes the tone is set, the characters and the situations are clearly introduced and a number of intriguing questions immediately arise, which call for answers that we receive along the way. Nicely supported by images and sound, the plot eventually unfolds in a thrilling finale. Keep an eye out, with all those intrigues and Japanese names that are hard to remember! But it’s worth it because this is a strong movie.

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