Director Kihachi Okamoto
Screenplay Kihachi Okamoto, Tetsuro Yoshida
Starring Shintaro Katsu, Toshiro Mifune, Ayako Wakao, Osamu Takizawa, Masakane Yonekura, Shin Kishida, Kanjūrō Arashi
The thought of merging franchises is old as the woods. Some may remember the Universal Monsters combining for one reason or another, usually with both surviving none the worse or wiser. Abbott and Costello meet all of the monsters. By the time of the late ’60’s, Mifune was in the salad days, cashing in on his rising fame in his post Kurosawa phase. He’d worked with Okamoto several times by now, as well working with directors from other countries like Boorman (Hell in the Pacific) and John Frankenheimer (Grand Prix).
He is also older, and it’s showing. The playfulness seems more forced than it was before and his face shows the years. The charisma is still there, but it is not quite as easily expressed as it was in his best work with Kurosawa.
The problem with a film like this is that we’re merging two storylines into one. I have little experience with the Zatoichi franchise is limited to the one they released in 2003 and the delightful film Blind Fury. They were 20 films in by now, 19 of which I had never seen. Fortunately, he goes back to his hometown in this story, so it’s easy to see the relationships rekindled.
Yojimbo had two (possibly three if you consider Machibuse released later the same year) films playing as the ronin with a mysterious past. It’s not as much history, and relatively easy to see the role he’s taken in the story. He’s been hired as a bodyguard for one of the lowly characters. Of course he never guards anyone’s interests but his own and those he deems worthy.
The point at which the two meet, Mifune’s ronin takes an immediate interest in the bounty on Zatoichi’s head. This bounty seems to follow the blind swordsman wherever he goes, but he never seems to bothered by it. His homesickness overrides any concerns on his part and hey rolls into town, taking people out with an intensity that feels somewhere between Bean and James Bond. It’s really that varied and confusing.
We see the woman he’s been romantically inclined with in the past, Umeno (Wakao) is no longer an option for him. She’s being doted on by Yojimbo, but she’s really mixed up in a lot of stuff. One might think there’d be tension between the titular characters here, but Ichi, as he is called, backs off enough to ease the tension. Ichi seems to back away from most things, but still finds himself a target for blame, no matter where he goes.
The joking at Ichi’s expense by his co-lead really feels familiar for the time, no matter how it makes one cringe now. Some of the lines are cruel, and reminiscent of the lines used on Mifune by Bronson in the deplorable Red Sun. If it feels like tough love, then your sensibilities never emerged beyond the era of Homer Simpson watching McBain.
The story, for all of the merging, works well enough. Both heroes know the score, for the most part, or at least they make the best decisions they can with the information they’re given at the time. That there has to be some sort of dissension between them overriding everything, even though they several times over work things out is just the demand of having them share the bill.
Acting, beyond the two leads and their love interest is not the best. Lots of frantic and ridiculous fighting, trying to recreate (unwisely) the scene from the first Yojimbo film. This may be a cultural difference, but the intelligence level and bravery represented in mass fighting seems to be nonexistent. It’s like everyone except for the heroes turn into Jerry Lewis.
A couple of the elders, the wise Hyoroku (Arashi) and the wicked Boss Masagoro (Yonekura) are able to move the plot along without embarrassment. Their gravitas extends beyond the chaos of the rest of the cast.
This film is good, but it is down the hill a little from great. Director Okamoto has as many delightful sequences as awful ones. The sound really shows the age of the film, along with some occasionally grainy color shots here and there.
The film feels anything but fresh. I can’t imagine this will disappoint anyone who has enjoyed films #2-19 for Zatoichi. Most people who enjoy Mifune should find something to take away here. It’s not a disappointing film. It’s just not memorable either.
(*** out of *****)