In the film "Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo," you can see where Benihana got his start. It's a samurai classic, starring Japan's favorite couple of cut-ups -- Toshiro Mifune as Yojimbo, the bodyguard, and Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi, the blind masseur.
Though both super swordsmen have seen their share of sequels, with Zatoichi the subject of 24 films and a television series, this is the dicey duo's only screen duel. And it hasn't been unreeled in 10 years. It's a broadly comedic encounter in which Mifune -- John Belushi's samurai inspiration -- uses expansive theatrics, and Katsu a Bowery Boys' style.
Most of all it is a wildly active film, a forerunner of the kung-fu genre. Samurai films, however, are rigidly moral, never just for kicks. Skirmishes in which a lone combatant is attacked by a goon squad are choreographed like ballet and as traditional as the gunfight in "High Noon."
Director Kihachi Okamoto, a cult figure second only to Akira Kurosawa, is considered his equal at staging swordfights, which are frequent and fast in "Zatoichi." Okamoto is also known for his rapid-fire editing -- cramming his works with from two to three times the normal number of shots.
The invincible Zatoichi was created for Katsu in 1962, as a change of pace for the then young and handsome leading man. Now Katsu, whose temper lost him the lead in "Kagemusha" in one week, plays a patient, chunky blind man. His antagonist is unchanged with the years: Mifune's still Mifune, a kind of Oriental Marlon Brando, sardonic and grunting. His Yojimbo, a fallen samurai, is still fond of sex and sake. Both are provided by the elegant Ayako Wakao, a Sandra Dee type, who grew into an accomplished actress though little has been required of her but grace.
She is pursued by one of the villains -- there's a village full, enough to keep the two swordsmen on edge. The town has been taken over by gangsters; the government officials know somebody there is holding out on his taxes; the shogun wants a showdown; and the town is a nest of spies and counterspies. Nobody's who he seems.
The film's ending, which was discarded and rewritten for Okamoto, is a sacred secret at the Biograph Theater, scene of this samurai night fever. No one will be seated in the last 10 minutes of the film, say owners, adding: "We're not telling and you shouldn't either."
It's a slice of life. ZATOICHI MEETS YOJIMBO At the Biograph through Monday.