Early into my
exploration of Japanese films, I came across the title ZATOICHI MEETS
YOJIMBO. Having seen several early Zatoichi movies as well as
both of Akira Kurosawa's classic "Yojimbo" movies starring Toshiro
Mifune, I decided to jump the gun (or sword, as it may be) and rent
ZATOICHI MEETS YOJIMBO despite my fear that it would reek of cheesy
exploitation, and also disrupt my plan of working my way through the
Master Ichi series chronologically. But with that title, how
could I resist? It is the Japanese equivalent of JAMES BOND
MEETS INDIANA JONES, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS DRACULA or De Niro meets Pacino.
Thanks to the fine performances of the two leads, the film avoids cheesy exploitation, but is still something of a letdown. The fun derives strictly from both men having a blast pitting their famous characters against each other, first as strangers who dislike each other, secondly as men hired to kill each other, and third as a team willing to turn an entire town against each other (as in the original YOJIMBO). Katsu's philosophical, quiet blind wanderer and Mifune's gruff, slovenly samurai make for an unlikely but entertaining pair, whether they are drinking together, fighting, or just hurling insults at each other ("Freak", "Animal"). The plot (town torn apart by rival gangsters, blah blah blah) is the basis for both Kurosawa's YOJIMBO and most of the Zatoichi series, a series that is uncannily, stubbornly formulaic - twenty films into the series and we still get the exact same basic plot as the first film! But this time around, the story is unnecessarily complicated with few worthwhile characters outside of the two anti-heroes.
Katsu is still as good as he ever was as Master Ichi, so the film rises and falls on Mifune's performance. He is good, but this is not your father's Yojimbo. It is as if the somewhat mystical Sanjuro of the Kurosawa films had been turned into a mere mortal, no longer capable of orchestrating events at will. Instead, all he can accomplish is long stretches of sleeping and drinking, only occasionally getting on his feet to engage in some violence. In this way, the script robs the historic meeting of two iconic characters of the energy it needs to make ZATOICHI MEETS YOJIMBO a classic movie.
Nine years after YOJIMBO, Mifune looks a little older but still takes command of the screen effortlessly (although he's of average size, in the part he looks like a big, Lon Chaney Junioreque hulk of a man) and he still has that "Mifune walk", a gait as instantly identifiable as that of John Wayne or Groucho Marx. Straight-backed, full of confidence, with shoulders held high, he looks like like he could stroll through hell and back again at 90 miles an hour without bothering to acknowledge the Devil. But rarely does the script ask him to be on his feet. When he is bipedal, he is great fun to watch. Even when he plays a rather distasteful practical joke on Zatoichi, exploiting the character's blindness for his own amusement, it is hard to dislike the samurai because Mifune plays the character with such gusto.
As with most Zatoichi films I have seen so far, ZATOICHI MEETS YOJIMBO is worth sticking with to get to the last ten or fifteen minutes, where the troublesome plot elements are not so much rectified as simplified by bloodletting and violence. (Will all those who have wronged Ichi please line up for your inevitable thrashings?) Unfortunately, the long-awaited climactic battle between both men is brisk and basically a draw. Unsatisfying, yes, but essentially unavoidable, given the iconic status of the two stars and their characters.
Fun in parts, dull in other, ZATOICHI MEETS YOJIMBO is a slight disappointment, but not a disaster, and is awarded an extra half-a-star simply for the two leads. ½ - JB