||Ever since 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, there has been a steady flow of movies that toss together famous characters from different films just to see what would happen if they met. More often than not, these characters end up fighting one another – usually by mistake, but not always. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman, the twenty-second installment in the long-running Zatoichi series, does not deviate from this formula. But while the two famous characters do meet, and do eventually draw swords on one another, what’s covered in the distance between those two points is pretty compelling in its own right, a feat that separates Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman from the rest of the pack.
Only a year before, a similar crossover had already been attempted with some success in 1970’s Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, a film in which the popular blind swordsman went head-to-head with Toshiro Mifune’s equally famous ronin Yojimbo, the grizzled hero from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and its sequel, Sanjuro. With that in mind, not to mention the increasing influence of Japanese chanbara films on the swordplay in Chinese wuxia movies, perhaps it was only a matter of time before a cinematic meeting between Zatoichi and the famous Shaw Brothers’ character known as the “One Armed Swordsman” took place. Both are disabled – Zatoichi by blindness, the One Armed Swordsman by his, well, lack of a right arm. And yet both are virtually unbeatable with the sword, despite their respective disabilities. Surely, a crossover film between these two could yield promising returns – and not just at the box office.
By 1970, Jimmy Wang Yu was embroiled in some contractual disputes with Shaw Brothers, the studio that released One Armed Swordsman and its sequel, so that may explain why the character in Zatoichi meets the One Armed Swordsman is named “Wang Kang” instead of “Fang Kang.” Whatever the reason, the name is different here, although ostensibly, it is more or less the same character. The plot device that allows for the monumental face-off between these two iconic characters is relatively simple. After years of an existence filled with seemingly unending violence and bloodshed, Wang Kang has decided to start a new life in Japan. While travelling to a temple to meet an old friend, Wang befriends a Chinese married couple and their young son who have already made a home for themselves in Japan, despite being foreigners.
Things turn ugly when they cross paths with an official procession of a local Japanese lord. Unaccustomed to Japanese laws, the Chinese couple’s son, Shaolong, accidentally does something to offend the powers-that-be. Unfortunately for him, the punishment doesn’t quite fit the crime, as the young boy is almost killed right on the spot for his “dishonorable” behavior. Luckily for the little boy, Wang is there to save the day, slicing and dicing a few bloodthirsty samurai in the process. Shockingly, the Japanese officials use Wang’s interference as an excuse to go ahead and massacre every man, woman, and child in sight, including the friendly Chinese couple. As a foreigner from China, Wang turns out to be the perfect scapegoat for the bad guys.
As Wang Kang battles off hordes of Japanese swordsman all throughout the countryside, Shaolong wanders off and has a fortuitous meeting with Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu). The ever-sympathetic blind masseuse immediately takes the lost child under his wing. Eventually, Wang Kang joins them, and the ragtag trio finds refuge outside town with a family that was actually present at the massacre and knows that Wang Kang is completely innocent. Hoping to get to the bottom of things, Zatoichi heads into town, but things go from bad to worse. Not only are the lives of Wang and Shaolong soon endangered, but so too are those of the kindly family members who gave them all shelter in the first place. Even worse, Zatoichi himself gets framed for the terrible misfortune that ultimately befalls his newfound comrades, which results in the much-awaited confrontation with Wang Kang, who mistakenly believes the masseur to be nothing more than an opportunistic traitor. With the Japanese-speaking Zatoichi unable to explain the truth to the Chinese language-only Wang Kang, a final, fatal showdown is inevitable – with surprising results.
As far as crossover movies go, Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman
does not disappoint. Both Shintaru Katsu and Jimmy Wang Yu acquit themselves well in their respective roles. As dual protagonists, they are on equal footing, and while audiences may have wanted to see them fight, I’m hard-pressed to believe that anyone really wanted either of them to die by story’s end. Neither character is given the short shrift in order to favor another nor is either of the protagonists scripted to act wholly out of character for the sake of plot convenience.
And the swordplay isn’t half-bad either, as each character maintains their respective fighting styles throughout the film, which makes for an interesting clash. While Zatoichi draws his blade in a way that audiences might perceive as stylish, but somehow “realistic,” Wang Kang’s style lacks the same kind of verisimilitude – and with good reason. The One Armed Swordsman is still rocking that old high-flying Shaw Brothers wuxia style, which not only totally works in context, but results in several comical in-jokes about flying from his befuddled Japanese opponents.
Thematically, Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman is about cross cultural misunderstanding, a theme that it explores in both comic and bittersweet ways. The two lead characters can’t communicate with each other, and despite earnest attempts to bridge the language barrier, the results are often futile. They end up mistranslating each other to much comic effect or they just end up fighting each other – with fatal results. The way in which the film examines Sino-Japanese tensions is nuanced, even-handed, and often humorous, making it slightly more in line with the Shaw Brothers film Heroes of the East than the more nationalistic, if not outright xenophobic Fist of Fury. Another relevant theme engrained in the film is the treatment of outsiders and “misfits.” The disabled heroes, the Chinese immigrants, the seen-it-all prostitute turned love interest Osen (Watako Hamaki), and the blind gambler Henoichi (Shinsuke Minami) all live on the margins, but they are also the film’s heroes and possess an integrity missing in the imperial Japanese powers-that-be, the majority of whom are depicted as universally corrupt in this, a Japanese film!
With its successful weaving of action, melodrama, intrigue, and low humor, Zatoichi Meets the One Armed Swordsman more than exceeds expectations for a crossover film. While it definitely delivers the goods in terms of entertainment value, the film is also a rather intelligent exploration of some larger themes involving the nation-state, cultural clashes, and life in the margins. But of course, it also has a blind guy and a one-armed dude whaling on each other with razor-sharp swords. Clearly, it’s something of a minor classic. (Calvin McMillin, 2009)