"Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo" is the 20th film featuring Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi, the blind masseur by trade and gambler by nature, but the first that I have ever seen of the 27 films that were made, mostly in the 1960s and 1970s. Like many Western viewers who come across this film it is from the perspective of familiarity with Toshiro Mifune's Yojimbo character. However, while there are obvious similarities between Sasa Daisaku, the yojimbo (body guard) that Mifune plays in this 1970 film, I really do not find it to be the same character from 1961's "Sanjuro" or from the 1962 sequel "Tsubaki Sanjuro," who was named Sanjuro Kuwabatake. The key difference is that Sasa shows more emotion, is more likely to get drunk, and is not ahead of the game this time around (in other words, he has a bit of Kikuchiyo from 1954's "Shichinin no samurai" in him); I have seen the argument that Sasa is Sanjuro in disguise or undercover, but I am inclined not to accept the idea or the proposition that the older Mifune is playing a more world weary version of his classic samurai gangster. Besides, the names of both characters in the title are occupational descriptions and not their given names. Since the film is directed by Kihachi Okamoto rather than Akira Kurosawa, the match up would seem to favor Zatoichi, but do not think that this is simply some sort of samurai film version of "Freddy vs. Jason" that climaxes with a fight to some sort of finish. Just appreciate going in that you are probably at a disadvantage in not knowing the background of both characters, because that is going to keep you from fully understanding this film.
Ichi, tired of the blood on his hands, returns to a peaceful village from his past, only to find that he is in the middle of yet another gang war. On one side is Masagoro (Sakatoshi Masakane), head of the Kobotoke Clan and renounced son of Eboshiya Yasuke (Osamu Takizawa), the wealthy silk distributor who is now the other side. Masagoro knows his father has been staling gold, so he hired Sasa to find the gold for him. The rascally Ichi does not want to get involved, but that changes when he learns about the hidden stolen gold. Sasa is promised a fortune for killing Zatoichi, but that does not seem as important as getting drunk. Clearly the yojimbo feels nothing but contempt for Masagoro, and he actually seems to have feeling for Umeno (Ayako Wakao), who has been reduced to a common prostitute by her debt to Eboshiya Yasuke. She wants the drunken yojimbo to ride the town of the yakuza and that appears to motivate him more than the money. Of course, this puts him on a collision course with Ichi, and a swordfight between Zatoichi and Yojimbo will figure into the resolution of the story, but the key part of director Kihachi Okamoto's film are the circuitous paths by which they come to that final confrontation.
Obviously the two master swordsmen start off as enemies, and while they do not become friends it becomes clear that would never happen given their natures. So the story rings true in that regard. The sword fights do not come until the last act of the film, but that is necessary since once these two draw their swords that will bring things to a head and a conclusion (but notice the difference between Katoichi and Yojimbo in terms of how they dispatch the quartet of swordsmen who jump them). As always, the film is filled with interesting supporting characters, and the one that stood out for me was Hyoroku (Kanjuro Arashi), who was once the chief of the peaceful village, but who made the mistake of hiring the Kobotoke Clan to protect the peasants during a time of famine and drought. After the gang took over the village, he became the coffin maker for the village, carving each lost a jizo. Still, the emphasis is on Zatoichi and Yojimbo, and it is the former, with his Columbo-like bumbling, who proves to be more central to the film than the latter, as Mifune comes across as playing his character with a hand tied behind his back. If this were not my first Zatoichi film I might be inclined to round up, but at this point I cannot read between the lines on the character enough to justify going higher on the rating (I might change my mind after checking out some more Zatoichi films on DVD). In terms of DVD extras there is a trailer for "Lone Wolf and Cub" (the series was produced by Katsu), some detailed character biographies, and some interesting liner notes that cover the history of the period and focus on the yakuza.