Zatoichi #20: Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)

Zatoichi 20 (8)
Directed by Kihachi Okamoto, written by Kihachi Okamoto and Tetsuro Yoshida.
Cast: Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), Toshiro Mifune (Yojimbo, Boss Masagoro’s bodyguard), Ayako Wakao (Umeno, a woman in trouble), Shin Kishida (Kuzuryu, an ice-cold yakuza), Masakane Yonekura (Boss Masagoro), Kanjuro Arashi (Hyoroku, an elderly gravemaker), and Osamu Takizawa (Boss Eboshiya, a silk merchant)

Let’s face it: Shintaro Katsu is a ham. He came out of vaudeville, so it’s no surprise that he clowns a bunch, tries to infuse Zatoichi with doses of slapstick, stumbling and pratfalling and eating sloppily and breaking out into wide grins and chortling heartily. Katsu’s often playing for the cheap seats, even in scenes that might be improved by stillness and whispers. His big, gestural performance style was made for melodrama, so it’s telling that the Zatoichi universe—centering around him—is so prone to sentimentality and bold gestures, with heroes and villains so broadly drawn that they might have been done with crayons.

What’s amazing is that, despite his buffoonery, the films around Katsu can achieve quietude. The filmmakers, casts, and crews found ways to insert subtlety into the proceedings. And Katsu, of course, can turn on a dime, from soundbombing to silence. He splats into stuff but he can wiggle his ears and go statue-still as well. His voice, though, even in quiet moments, is rarely less than a low-rumbling boom.

I didn’t realize how subtle Katsu’s voice was in the series until it was set beside Toshiro Mifune’s. That’s right. The two biggest samurai stars of the day, Katsu and Mifune, come together at last. Zatoichi works for one town boss; Mifune another; so of course they’re rivals.

Now, Mifune’s a drunken yeller, perpetually red-faced and swinging about. He’s one of cinema’s most outsized actors—and like his fellow imposing, ferocious colleagues (Klaus Kinski, Jim Carrey, Orson Welles), he sucks the air out of a room, a landscape, the sky itself. He menaces even when he romances. Not one to simply say something when he can shout it, or to set a bottle down gently when he can slam it across a room, Mifune can be electrifying to watch. He jolts the film. Everyone talks in a louder register in the film than in most Zatoichis. The blood is redder, and flows more quickly. Punches leave big purple bruises. Dirt and mud cake onto foreheads and kimonos. Rain pounds down. Sword chops and gunshots pop with force. There’s not just plots but double-crosses, and double-crossing the double-crosses.

The trouble is, enough volts will eventually numb you, too. Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo is exhausting to watch—and, at 115 minutes, it’s one of the longer installments, too. By the time the big climax began, I was sighing, “Enough already.” It made me appreciate how Katsu integrates his performance style into the Zatoichi universe, as opposed to imposing his will on it. Katsu’s flexible; Mifune is not; and Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo suffers for the latter’s inability (or unwillingness) to bend.

Now, Akira Kurosawa was able to shape Mifune’s ferocity into shattering, classic performances, and the Kurosawa/Mifune collaborations are among the best Japanese cinema has to offer. But director Kihachi Okamoto ain’t Kurosawa. (It’s okay, kid—no one was.) Okamoto’s screenplay, co-written with Tetsuro Yoshida, goes on too many digressions, and takes too long to get to its very simple points. Greed is bad, power corrupts, we got it. Characters aren’t vividly conveyed, and I get the sense that the filmmakers essentially told Katsu and Mifune to “you know, do what y’all do.”

At least Okamoto has a distinctive visual style. While many call cinematography “painting with light,” “painting with ink” might be more appropriate for Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo. Deep, shiny blacks resonate in the color scheme. Murk dominates. People wears blacks and browns. Eyes are cold, haunted, even in daytime. A bright, shining fire at night illuminates dark silhouettes and smoke more than anything else. Even supposedly well-lit interiors look like homages to Rembrandt. This is a world half-glimpsed, that we squint at, in which figures emerge from the darkness.

Zatoichi 20 (1) Zatoichi 20 (2) Zatoichi 20 (3) Zatoichi 20 (4) Zatoichi 20 (5) Zatoichi 20 (6) Zatoichi 20 (9) Zatoichi 20 (10) Zatoichi 20 (12) Zatoichi 20 (14) Zatoichi 20 (15)

(I’ve watched all these movies on Blu-Ray, by the way, but I’m making screengrabs from DVD, so I apologize belatedly—twenty movies in—that the reproductions don’t do justice to the films. *sigh*)

So, the movie’s style is as bold as Mifune’s acting. I just wish it made more sense, and modulated itself a little more.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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2 Responses to Zatoichi #20: Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970)

  1. Kenneth says:

    Something else to remember: By this time, Katsu was producing the Zatoichi series thru his own production company. This film’s the only one where the main villian does not die. It seems to have been an unofficial agreement between the two leads, especially since its the third time Mifune plays his beloved Yojimbo character. Later in the same year, his production company hired Katsu to appear as the main villian in a fourth installment of Yojimbo (unoffically of course, wink wink). By this time, Mifune was sort of making a 2nd career out of playing Yojimbo and would go on to play him yet again in a Japanese TV series “Ronin of the wilderness”. Funny thing is, Katsu had no problem allow Mifune to escape being killed in the end yet he would get killed on screen as the villian in Mifune’s production later that same year.

    You’re being a little unfair to Okamoto. He did produce some legendary Samurai films (e.g. Sword of Doom; Samurai Assassins; Red Lion) but obviously this Zatoichi film isn’t one of them.

    That’s kind of the catch. By this time, Katsu was literally making Zatoichi larger than life. One reason may be was that his home studio, Daiei, went bankrupt and so he took the Zatoichi series with him to Toho, Japan’s largest studio and home to Mifune. So the series became bigger budgets, bigger talent, and oversized everything.

    Shame, cause the next one, Zatoichi goes to the Fire Festival isn’t bad. It co-starrs legendary actor Tatsuya Nakadai (from Kurosawa’s Ran; Kagemusha; Yojimbo and also Cannes film award winning films for Kobayashi). Nakadai is every bit the actor as Mifune; actually, he’s a much better actor with a greater range.

  2. Good points, all. Well, most of them, anyway. I was well aware that Mifune’s Yojimbo probably wouldn’t die here, for a whole host of reasons, but I don’t see him as the villain in this film. Like a lot of samurai & yakuza in this series, he’s somewhat honorable but caught between Zatoichi and corrupt bosses/magistrates. I do get the sense that, by this point, Katsu was operating on star power, bringing in the big stars, etc., and the bigness can be to the series’s detriment.

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