“Ichi” has an interesting premise, being a reimagining of the enduringly popular Japanese tale of Zatoichi, the blind masseur and master swordsman, who was previously the subject of a long-running film and television series from the 1960s to 80s, and the 2003 blockbuster from Kitano Takeshi. Here, “Vexile” and “Ping Pong” director Sori Fumihiko adds a twist by recasting the protagonist as a young woman, played by gorgeous actress Ayase Haruka (recently in “Cyborg She”). The film boasts an impressive samurai pedigree thanks to the presence of fight choreographer Kuze Hiroshi, who worked on several Akira Kurosawa epics, including “Ran”, as well as Yamada Yoji’s masterpiece “The Twilight Samurai”. After having proved popular during its domestic release, the film now arrives on region 2 DVD via Manga Entertainment.
The plot finds Ayase Haruka as the titular blind swordswoman wandering the countryside in search of the blind man who trained her as a child before disappearing, frequently having to cut down rogues who mistakenly assume that her lack of sight will make her an easy target. During an encounter with one such bandit gang, she meets a fellow wanderer called Toma (played by Osawa Takao, also in “Sky High” and “Midnight Eagle”), who tries to protect her despite his lack of sword fighting skills. Ichi wipes out the thugs and saves Toma, inadvertently drawing the attention of their leader, the disfigured Banki (Nakamura Shido, recently in Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima”). As a result, Ichi and Toma are drawn into the struggle between the bandit gang and a local village, made all the more complicated when it emerges that Banki may know the man that she is looking for.
What is most surprising about “Ichi” is the fact that despite its potentially revisionist premise, the film sticks very closely to the traditional “Zatoichi” and samurai formula, with the plot being a very basic and predictable, protect the village and hero’s journey style affair. Indeed, the fact that the main character is played by a woman is really neither here nor there, and Ichi’s femininity never plays a significant part, either narratively or thematically. Strangely, the film is arguably about Toma as much as Ichi, being equally, if not more concerned with his development from a coward comically unable to draw his sword (an odd conceit which results in several scenes of presumably unintentional amusement) into a fully fledged hero. Ichi herself remains a somewhat more distant figure, and although she does develop somewhat on her quest to find the man who may or may not be her father, director Sori seems oddly less interested in her as a character. Thankfully, Ayase Haruka turns in an excellent performance as the blind swordswoman, adding a layer of vulnerability beneath her impressive killing skills, and bringing depth to what might otherwise have been a one-note role, deservedly winning Best Actress at the 2008 Nikkan Sports Film Awards for her efforts. She manages to give the film a solid emotional core, and although Ichi’s romance with Toma never really comes off, the film is moving enough in its own wistful way.
Visually, the film is gorgeous, with Sori making the very most out of the beautiful countryside and bleak snowy mountains. The production values were obviously high, and the film has a handsome look and convincing eye for period detail. There is enough action to keep things moving along at a good pace, with the choreography from Kuze Hiroshi being quite breathtaking in places. Certainly, the film is one of the few to make genuinely good use of slow motion, with Kuze managing to add a real sense of grace and beauty to Ichi’s movements during combat scenes without over-stylising the action. As a result, the battles are exciting and occasionally stunning, helped by less of a reliance on fake looking CGI blood than in other recent genre efforts.
Certainly, “Ichi” is one of the better Japanese period set action films of recent years, and is an entertaining and worthy new entry in the “Zatoichi” series. Although more could perhaps have been done with the protagonist being a woman, it is hard to complain given the quality of Ayase Haruka’s performance, and the fact that she looks stunning throughout despite her character being dressed in rags and presumably having no access to modern makeup or hair care products.
Fumihiko Sori (director) / Kan Shimosawa (screenplay)
CAST: Haruka Ayase … Ichi
Shido Nakamura … Banki
Yôsuke Kubozuka … Toraji Shirakawa
Takao Osawa … Toma Fujihira