Zatoichi meets Yojimbo (Zatôichi to Yôjinbô, 1970)

The first of the classic Zatoichi films I ever saw, and it's an unusually classy entry for the series, because of Toshiro Mifune's presence and a top director, Kihachi Samurai Assassin Okamoto, at the helm. Indeed, there's tension within the film between its more ambitious elements and the generic hurlyburly of the plot - there are points where I had virtually no idea what was going on, whilst still enjoying it hugely. Mifune doesn't, despite expectations, play Sanjuro, but a more erratic character, Sassa, who's drunken, coarse, and often at odds with Ichi, but also on the side of the angels, and with a romantic interest to boot. Ichi returns to a village he remembers as beautiful and peaceful, only to find, of course, that it's now riddled with yakuza scumbags, divided into warring factions centred around an elderly boss and his loutish younger son. His elder son has married into the family that manages the Imperial mint, and is running a gold pilfering scam. Younger son wants a cut of the gold, elder son wants all of it, father has it and has hidden it where no-one can find it. The plot is, really, about as important as that of The Big Sleep, and about as comprehensible. What's really important are the humour and character interludes, as Ichi and Sassa trade insults, threats, help, and booze whilst trying to find what the other is up to. Mifune's expert playing of seedy nobility matches Shintaro Katsu's easy warmth as Ichi. Between them is the damsel in distress Umeno (Ayako Wakao), whom Ichi idolises and Sassa loves, but she, once raped by younger son and in debt to the father, works as a prostitute. And the inevitable serious badass turns up in the shape of Kuzuryu (Shin Kishida), a character who's a plain steal of Tatsuya Nakadai's in Yojimbo, carrying as he does a deadly pistol that's a joker in the pack for the two master swordsmen. As in Samurai Assassin, when Okamoto gets the plot out of the way he cuts loose with an incredible final battle, which sees a stack of gold dust blowing away in a snow storm as the three twisted siblings do each-other to death in a total freak-out of a scene. Ichi and Sassa slice and dice their opponents, and then turn on each-other when they think Umeno is dying, and nearly cut each-other to pieces. It's a flawed but often beautiful, exciting, and hilarious film. I am struck how a series like this in its twentieth episode is so vigorous, where Hollywood sequels are so deathly.

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