At first glance Zatoichi meets Yojimbo appears to be a meeting of two much loved samurai characters from Japan's cinematic golden age — Kawabatake from Yojimbo as played by Toshiro Mifune, and the blind swordsman Zatoichi as played by Shintaro Katsu.
However, first glances are often incorrect, and while Mifune's character does indeed resemble the crafty bodyguard of Kurosawa's masterpiece, he is in fact a secret agent named Sese Daisuke on the trail of some stolen imperial gold.
This little fact generally drives reviews of the 20th Zatoichi film into the dirt as many feel betrayed by both the title and first three quarters of the film. Sese Daisuke's identity is made relevant at the end, until then though, the script by Ttetsuro Yoshida and Kihachi Akamato is content to present Mifune as if he was the same character made famous in Yojimbo and Sanjuro. But he's not, and that pisses people off.
Me? I didn't give a shit either way. I was just happy to see Shintaro Katsu and Toshiro Mifune wielding swords in the same damn film. Anyone familiar with the Zatoichi franchise will be right at home here. We begin with an ambush (as virtually all of the blind swordsman films do) during a torrential rain/wind storm as Zatoichi tries to make his way back to a village of which he harbors fond memories. Zato is tired and wants to relax. He remembers the smell of plums, the sound of the babbling brook, and gentle caress of the springtime breeze and ties them all to this little place.
But the village has changed in the three years since he left. The kind old man who ran the place is out of power and a gang of stunningly vicious gangsters has moved in and taken over the place. Worse, his favorite lady in town Umeno, now runs a brothel catering to the scumbags in town.
The town has one gang run by Boss Masagoro, but there appears to be an overlord in the seemingly kindly Yasuke Eboshiya. Zatoichi immediately sets about figuring out what's gone wrong with the town. Umeno refuses to admit she remembers him, but the local blacksmith does and fills Zato in on some of the goings on. Apparently, everyone is looking for bars of gold rumored to be hidden somewhere in town. Once the gang took over, at the welcome behest of Sanaemon, the former town elder, during a famine, he's taken to continuously carving Jizo statuettes and placing them outside the town gates. You see, before he made a truce with the gang, they killed 183 of the townspeople and now he can only atone for those deaths by creating and placing the statues.
Something's fishy though, and Zatoichi knows it.
Mifune is a hired bodyguard working for Masagoro with a stunningly high bar tab and a streak of nastiness that keeps even the meanest of the gangsters away. He takes an immediate dislike to Zatoichi, and with a price of 100 ryu put on the blind man's head, seems extra anxious to collect it.
If you have seen any of the preceding 19 Zatioichi films there is nothing at all new here, the film is about 30 minutes too long though and drags terribly in the middle as Zato and Sese play back and forth with Masagoro and Eboshiya. Like most of the Zatoichi films The last twenty minutes of the film is a massive swordfight where everyone gets their just deserts and Zato leaves town.
There is a lot to like in this film if you can get past the phony tie to Kurosawa's action samurai pictures. Shintaro Katsu knew Zatoichi so well by the time this film was made I am surprised he didn't actually go blind, while Mifune was already the standard setting gruff samurai, so he's right at home here with this material. While the mystery of the missing gold bars would take someone like Adrian Monk about 4 minutes to solve it's still fun for the audience to pick up the clues along with Zato and Sese, and I must say, the final ten minutes of the film are as good as any Zatoichi film will get.
The DVD from Animego is in widescreen and original Japanese with regular English subs or "expanded" Englsh subs. The expanded subs offer definition of unfamiliar terms and translations of both signs and writing. It's a really nice touch.