Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (YMJ) is a convoluted mess. By the 20th film in the series, you’d think they’d have figured out what makes a Zatoichi film work, but here the missteps are huge. Yes, we get to see Ichi “meet” the yojimbo (literal translation: bodyguard) but I couldn’t have cared less. The script gives neither Shintaro Katsu nor Toshiro Mifune anything interesting to do and basically casts the two leads as extras in a mish mash of events that don’t develop either character.
The central plot revolves around a embezzlement scheme. Ichi returns to a town he remembers fondly for some much needed rest and relaxation only to find the place drastically changed. In place of the village elder he knew and respected, there is a merchant who has risen to power by scheming to skim gold from the federal treasury. Sasa, the yojimbo, is in the employ of the merchant but he spends most of his days drinking. He longs to be with a local whore who’s been forced into the sex trade by a debt she owes the merchant. He’s also on a secret mission that the merchant knows nothing about. Add in a few more local plot points, the merchant’s two sons, and a hitman sent to deal with the situation and you have very little room left for Ichi. Almost none, in fact. It’s amazing that they found the time to have Ichi and Sasa fight, but it happens in the last five minutes of the movie and only lasts for one minute. That’s no problem, though, because there really is no reason for the fight to happen in the first place.
I can only imagine that this film was pushed out as a cash-in. Even though Mifune’s character here isn’t the one from the Kurosawa classics, there’s an attempt to create homages to those films. In one scene, Ichi even tells the coffin builder (who we never see with any coffins) that he’s going to need four new coffins soon. The cinematography is gorgeous and Ichi looks cool sporting a shaved head and cruder-than-usual stick sword, but there’s very little entertainment to be found here. There’s almost no music until the last reel when we get some nice cues from Akira Ifukube, but I’m not even sure that those weren’t recycled from another film. This really appears to have been hastily assembled. That’s puzzling since it came out almost two years after the previous film! I kept checking the clock to see how much more I was going to have to sit through, and I LOVE Zatoichi films. Well, most of them.
ZMY was written and directed by Kihachi Okamoto which explains a lot. His infamous 1966 film, Sword of Doom, was also a hodge podge of plot threads that were never woven into a cohesive whole. Unlike ZMY, though, that film was supposed to be the first part of a series. Viewers have often speculated that the proposed sequels to SOD would have tied up the loose ends, but if ZMY is any indication, they’d be wrong about that. I think that Okamoto wanted to create something that was more than “just another Zatoichi movie” but in the process he brought too much of himself to the table, much like a record producer who makes every artist they work with sound more like the producer than like themselves.
ZMY is a failure on many levels. At 155 minutes it’s longer than any of the Z films that came before and it still has less screen time for the Ichi character than any of those. I have no idea if it made money or not, but like many modern sequels that don’t deserve it, this movie probably did killer box office on name recognition alone. At least that kept the series going. That’s pretty much all the good that came out of it though. Only recommended for Kihachi Okamoto fans.