Zatoichi the blind swordsman, one of Japan’s most cherished screen characters made famous by Shintaro Katsu’s irreplaceable performance in a long-running feature film and TV series, gets a feminine reboot as 23-year-old actress Haruka Ayase assumes the role of a sword-fighting goze, a blind female shamisen player named “Ichi.” Director Fumihiko Sori crafts a melancholy period drama colored by spurts of violent, blood-splattering swordplay that is both an homage to the original films and yet different enough to stand on its own. It is a modest chambara film propped up by a restrained, mature performance from Ayase yet hindered by the excessively dreariness of her character’s existence, the disparate campiness of the film’s gaudy villains, unimaginative use of played out genre convention and a combination of excessive slow-motion and noticeably artificial digital blood effects that cheapen otherwise well-executed sword fight choreography.
Ayase’s portrayal of a blind entertainer with quick-draw sword skills in Edo-era Japan relies on the novelty that the role is now filled by an attractive yet socially withdrawn female. It works about as well as the American comic book world’s obsession with creating female counterparts for Superman, Spider-Man and The Hulk. (I’ll give Cassandra Cain as Batgirl a free pass due to her extensive martial arts skills.) That is to say, a female Zatoichi looks and feels like a gimmick, rather than an earnest attempt at simply creating a good movie.
Ichi wanders the countryside in search of her father after being raped and subsequently kicked out of a goze association. That’s what unequal rights for women amounts to. She arrives in a rural town where she befriends a young seeing-eye boy who becomes her helper in searching for her father. She also meets a potential love interest in a samurai named Fujihira Toma (Takao Osawa) with a sword-drawing problem that starts out lightly comical as it appears that he’s either scared or his sword is glued into its scabbard. As a result he must repeatedly rely on Ichi’s intervention while pretending to be the hero. But we later learn that he actually is a skilled swordsman but is mentally incapable of drawing his sword after a childhood incident with a katana that caused his mother to go blind.
Unfortunately for the film, this whole sub-plot with Fujihira veers towards unintended humor when it tries to play serious. The blinding of his mother should have been tragic but the way it’s hurriedly directed I nearly burst out laughing because the whole thing is so absurd. Another problem is that Fujihira is supposedly adept at fighting with a bokken, a wooden sword. The question is, if his real sword is useless because of his inability to draw it, why not carry a bokken so he can at least bludgeon assailants? Given the number of times he ends up in deadly encounters, you think he would either sell his sword for a new profession or come up with a plan “B” rather than wait for the chance he should befriend a blind female with super sword skills. This in itself stretches the whole blind swords-person premise beyond belief and Sori would have been better off going with a more uniformly comic-camp tone that firmly establishes we’re in fantasy land.
Getting back to the plot, Ichi’s search for her father is merely a device to bring her into contact with a gang of criminal swordsmen who are exploiting the townsfolk. Their leader is Banki, a former high-ranking samurai who was chased out of his job after his face was severely burned and disfigured by an accident. Shido Nakamura, who was previously Jet Li’s Japanese martial arts opponent in FEARLESS plays this psychotic character way over-the-top, a bit like Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face in BATMAN AND ROBIN. That sorry excuse for a film seemingly also influenced the production design of ICHI, at least for the villains. The gang members all dress in ridiculous, multi-colored outfits and we briefly see Banki hanging out in near-surreal architecture. Even a simple platform he’s seen sitting on at one point looks like some post-modern design completely out of context with the rest of the film’s period look. Banki’s facial scarring is revealed at the end and can best be described as a poor-man’s version of Aaron Eckhart as Two-Face in THE DARK KNIGHT, meaning it doesn’t look natural in the slightest. I’m still trying to understand how fire would cause a strip of flesh to stretch itself over his eye socket.
The confrontation between Ichi and the gangsters is handled in a strangely anticlimactic and unsatisfying fashion. She’s never really interested in them but wanders into a confrontation that goes sour. Whereas Shintaro Katsu’s Ichi always seemed to have a plan and know what was going on despite his blindness, Ayase’s Ichi is operating on a more instinctual and reactionary level. She’s not trying to save anyone because she’s so absorbed in self pity over her lot in life. It’s acknowledged by Fujihira in the film. The big transformation Ichi goes through is to acknowledge it herself and to choose to reach out to others. But this doesn’t fundamentally change anything in the film because all Ichi ever does is react. She remains emotionally withdrawn through most of the movie whereas Katsu’s Ichi was a likeable, warm person who kept his inner demons to himself for the most part. In this way, Katsu’s portrayal was multidimensional whereas Ayase sticks to the same morose, anti-social guise through most of the movie and she’s just not as interesting or likable. Actually, with Ayase’s character played so blandly and passively, Fujihira ends up becoming the most identifiable hero.
When it comes to the film’s swordplay I have mixed feelings. The choreography is well orchestrated and the actors’ movements are satisfactory. There is an adequate amount of action for a typical chambara movie. There are several examples of 300-style high-speed camera work during action sequences that produce a clean slow-mo effect. Like 300, this allows the viewer to plainly see strikes in vivid detail but also like 300, the trick is overused. What’s exploited even more are blood sprays, mostly conjured in post-production by computer effects and like the digital bloodletting in Takeshi Kitano’s ZATOICHI and even NINJA ASSASSIN, the artifice is obvious. First, Sori should have cut two-thirds of the blood sprays out so as not to wear out the effect and secondly, he should have stuck to live squibs and perhaps save the computer effects for limb severing and impalements. I will say there is one very effective-looking chest stab that had me wincing. Apart from this and the limb cleaving, the digital effects cheapen the fight scenes.
Music in ICHI is unusual for a jidai geki or chambara movie. It was put together by Michael Edwards and Lisa Gerrard who together produce a Celtic-themed score that could be at home in a LORD OF THE RINGS movie. It’s a rather daring choice, much like Masaru Sato’s eclectic, percussion-driven score for YOJIMBO. Again, Kitano’s ZATOICHI may have also provided some influence due to Keiichi Suzuki’s offbeat score for that film.
Had I never seen one of Shintaro Katsu’s ZATOICHI films I might have enjoyed ICHI more than I did. Yet knowing how much better the original films are in almost every regard makes it difficult to see any real value or point in ICHI. The film is depressing, it’s lead character unlikable until the end and much of the production blandly mimics genre elements such as gambling house scenes and windy street showdowns that have been done hundreds of times before in years past with better lead and supporting actors, better scripts, better production design, and better choreography. To use another superhero reference, this is basically the SUPERMAN RETURNS of chambara cinema, but worse because Takeshi Kitano already did a redo that while not as good as the real thing was still superior because, well, it was Takeshi Kitano and he’s as much of an icon as Katsu was. Another problem was in thinking that a young actress like Haruka Ayase could somehow play on the same field as giants like Katsu and Kitano. Of course she can’t even though she appears to be a fine actress. In short, the film just doesn’t need to exist but since it does, it works best if you’re not expecting a proper redo of ZATOICHI which is something I couldn’t get past. If it’s simply female-fighting chambara action you crave, ICHI will do but LADY SNOWBLOOD and AZUMI are superior examples.
ICHI is available on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD in the U.S. from FUNImation and on Blu-ray and DVD in the U.K. from Manga Entertainment.REVIEW: Ichi (2008),
chambara • Ichi (2008) • jidai geki • swordplay • Zatoichi