Judge Adam Arseneau keeps a sword hidden in his back scratcher.
She cuts through darkness in search of light.
A new twist on a beloved franchise, Ichi reinvents the Japanese blind swordsman legend with girl power: a female in the lead.
Facts of the Case
Ichi (Haruka Ayase, My Girlfriend Is a Cyborg) is a goze, a blind musician who travels the country begging for work. A helpless female on the exterior, she harbors a fierce secret for any men brave enough to challenge or threaten her. She is a blind swordsman, er, swordswoman, her walking stick conceals a hidden blade, and she has the skill to cut down any challenger. Her wanderings seem aimless, but she is searching for someone very important.
After running afoul of some local bandits and losing all his money, a hapless and slightly incompetent ronin named Toma Fujihira (Takao Osawa) is rescued by Ichi. Needing a way to recoup his losses, they head to the local gambling hall, where Ichi helps Toma clean house. Angry at being swindled, more bandits attack and are promptly dispatched by Ichi. The local inn owners, assuming the deed was performed by Toma, hire him to protect them from the inevitable bandit reprisal, and Toma is forced to take the credit for the kills.
As the bandits descend on the village looking for revenge, the bandit leader, Banki (Shido Nakamura, Death Note) is cautious. He's seen clean backhand wounds like this before, firsthand from a legendary blind swordsman, and he's very interested to meet Ichi…
One of the most venerable franchises in the Japanese popular culture, the blind swordsman Zatoichi is roughly analogous to the Western obsession with Robin Hood. It gets made, remade, adapted, and re-adapted again and again. The latest iteration is Ichi, offering up a new twist by swapping the lonely and blind swordsman for a lonely and blind swordswoman, changing it irrevocably. Okay, actually, it doesn't change much at all.
The story here should be familiar to most with but a cursory appreciation of the story: a blind and helpless wanderer who ends up fighting bandits and righting wrongs, usually reluctantly. No one suspects the poor innocent blind person of being one of the deadliest swordfighters in the world—usually because no one lives through a hostile encounter to spread the tale. A few villagers saved and a few bandits slain, and it's off into the sunset, shuffling and tapping her innocuous cane in front of her.
In a way, the blind swordsman mythos works better in Ichi than it does in Zatoichi proper. By making the heroine a female, an additional element of helplessness and fragility is added to the character that the men just can't bring to the table. Who could ever suspect a lowly blind female as a brutal killer? As the film progresses, we get more of Ichi's back story, and the girl's had a pretty rough life. Feudal Japanese culture isn't particularly kind to women, much less blind ones.
Hardcore Zatoichi fans should find plenty of service here. Ichi works its reimaging into the canon of the blind swordsman universe, slowly revealing the enigmatic female's identity as the film progresses. Spoilers are bad, so I shall say no more about it, but we definitely find out her connection to the big Z. We are introduced to Toma as the bumbling sidekick to Ichi early on, and, in a sense, he is as much the subject of the film as Ichi. He is pleasant and well-intended and totally inept as a samurai, but like the blind swordswoman herself, there is more to him than first appears. About halfway through the film, we get some back story, and his impotence becomes much easier to tolerate. In many ways, his is a more interesting story.
Ichi really has a marvelous cast, packed full of recognizable faces. Haruka Ayase does well in the role of Ichi, stoic and beautiful, but extremely reserved. She certainly looks the part, but it's hard to get a sense of her acting range in a part where she speaks a line of dialogue every 20 minutes. Keep an eye out for Riki Takeuchi as a marvelously pompadour-sporting bandit. He's the one hamming up his performance in such marvelous excess, like he always does. Also of note is Yosuke Kubozuka (Samurai Resurrection), who plays the son of the inn town. He's a great actor in a small part here.
Ichi features some quite poetic and artistic cinematography, with expertly framed shots and striking flashback sequence that give the film a vibrant and sophisticated air about it. I wish this translated to the fight sequences, but alas. Ayase does her best with the choreography, but it never quite jives. It looks just a bit too stiff. Heck, Takeshi Kitano ran circles around this film in Zatoichi, and he's practically a senior citizen. The CGI comes out in full force here, with plenty of computer-generated red flying in all directions, but the cinematography overuses the fast motion/slow motion/fast motion transition too often. It gets a bit nauseating.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer is sharp and colorful. A fair amount of grain is evident throughout the film, in both indoor and outdoor sequences, and it occasionally borders on the distracting, but it gives the film a nice visual intensity. The print is clean and free from defect, and with the exception of the constant grain, looks marvelous. The costume design and art direction in this film is marvelous. The bandits are resplendent in some of the most ludicrously gaudy and colorful outfits this side of a clown rodeo, all the marvelous primary colors come through with screaming intensity and saturation.
The film presents in 5.1 surround in both native Japanese and an English dub. Both are similar in presentation, with all five channels nicely utilized during combat sequences. Swords clank and robes swoosh, and you can actually hear blood splatters travel from left to right across the speaker range. The English dub is on par with Funimation anime dubs (featuring familiar voice actors), giving the music and bass a slight bump, making it a bit smoother on the ears. Subtitles are included in English only. The score is full of soaring strings, ethereal female singers, and traditional Japanese instruments, with original music by Lisa Gerrard (Gladiator).
As for extras, there are none.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Once you get past the novelty of seeing the gender roles in the blind swordsman franchise reversed, Ichi slowly shambles down the same, well-travelled road that all the previous television shows, films, and adaptations have. There's really nothing new or original going on here in the story that make it stand above the competition—blind swordsman stumbles into village with local bandit trouble, tries to keep a low profile, but ends up chalking up the bodies, etc. It's a good story, but a familiar one, and not necessarily strong enough to justify yet another adaptation to tell it.
Ichi feels awfully familiar, because it is. Fans have seen this film a dozen times now, whether they know it or not—and most won't care one bit. This is the story of a blind chick with a sword cutting down bandits. This either sounds awesome to you, or not appealing in the slightest. Ichi is straightforward like that.
See, I like the idea of a blind girl cutting down bandits. Not guilty.
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