Shimozawa Kan, writer for the original Zatoichi story from the '60s forward and the inspiration for Takeshi Kitano's 2003 reimagining, can be attributed as the source writer for this most recent rendition of the story, Ichi. What does this mean, exactly, for Sori Fumihiko's spin on the story of the blind master swordsman? Essentially we're working with yet another reimagining, one that veers further away from the material already established. Ichi strums a shimasen (Japanese guitar) instead of doling out massages, seeks to find the blind master that becomes the inspiration behind the character's wandering nature, and -- most importantly -- she's a woman. All these improvisations on the narrative are very welcome in Ichi, making this Japanese swordplay picture an interesting spin on the tale. It's a shame that a haphazard conclusion ultimately cripples the experience to an unforgiving degree.
Of course, the thing we're looking most forward to getting into with this flick is the semi-perverse pleasure we get through watching a sightless person slice and dice through more able-bodied individuals, and there's a healthy chunk of that here. Though we see a quick shot of bloodshed in the introduction, it's about twelve or so minutes before we get to see Ichi whip out her cane-sword combo for the first time. She saves a shaky samurai named Fujihira Toma (Ôsawa Takao), who's unable to draw his blade due to a troubling childhood experience. It'll be overwhelmingly obvious by the way he overplays it, but that fact will be important to the story -- and important to the film's collapse. Through circumstances around Ichi's rescuing this guy, and a situational screw-up in thinking he's the battle-worn savior doing the damage Ichi's doing, he's taken on as a bodyguard for the local town's leaders. That's right, a samurai who can't draw his sword, and he's got to defend the town against Banki, played with cartoonish mediocrity by Shido Nakamura, and his band of rogue samurai.
Without question, Ayase Haruko nails down the Ichi character. She carries finesse about her swordsmanship and her still moments that are bewildering, stoic yet heartfelt to a convincing degree. Lots of close-ups linger on her sightless gazes, and we're oftentimes dialed directly in. As a heroine, she easily tops the likes of Ueto Aya in Azumi and stands tooth-and-nail with Yoon So-yi in Shadowless Sword, tapping into a core emotionality as an "orphaned" girl with a set purpose. Moreover, making the key character into a woman crates several different obstacles for the character, including romantic interests with a less-powerful man and doubled-up underestimation based on her sex and "handicap". That makes her all the more compelling, as well as a hint of intrigue in trying to figure out whether Ichi might just be a relative to the famed character.
Naturally, the big draw comes in the battle sequences, which are stylishly gripping. Ichi fights with a style that's different from most of her villains, holding her blade underhand like a cane and keeping a low, subdued stance. But she's lightning fast once she lunges forward, and the fight choreography keeps our interest locked. It mixes a few slow-mo 300 like moments here and there, but it's to a degree that I felt added to the action instead of just dressing up mediocre sequences with style. The same can be said for the splashes of computer-generated blood, which sprays and spills much in the way Takeshi Kitano's version -- only with a deal more restraint.
However, it's Ichi "love" interest -- the samurai who cannot draw his weapons -- that leads to the film's crumble. Alright, yeah, the idea that a childhood trauma keeps him from wreaking violence on his enemies is an amusing plot device, and carries throughout as a partly comedic, partly dramatic element through a large chunk of Ichi as he flexes his skill with wooden weapons (sticks, mostly, but boken are mentioned). However, it continues long into the narrative, far longer than it needs to. The entire picture starts to form and mold around his quirk, and it simply grows more bothersome as we progress through kink after plot kink in formulaic fashion.
Ichi all swells to an action-fueled yet wholly predictable resolution involving the town, our blind swordswoman, her love interest of a useless samurai, and a group of hackneyed villains storming into the town in an ode to Yojimbo or something of that ilk. Liberality in forgiveness for poor conclusions worms into the heads of films enthusiasts -- especially those who enjoy swordplay pictures -- but this one in particular is a painfully destructive finale that neglects sensibility. I'm all for conclusions that stray from the norm, but the wrap-up to this version of the story suffers from extremely poor decisions that destroy character legitimacy and any sense of strength. The build-up is intriguing, with sleekly-constructed swordsmanship and innovativeness because of its gender flip and nudges to the originals, but an otherwise agreeable slice-'n-dice picture is spoiled because of how horribly it cripples its characters at the end. Enjoyable, but deeply flawed.
FUNimation have presented Ichi in a standard, clear keepcase package with a shiny embossed slipcover adorning the outside. Inside, the inset artwork is glaringly pink with the film's title strategically placed in specific positions. In fact, the entire thing's pretty darn pink, but at least it's handled in classy, well-done fashion.
Video and Audio:
FUNimation's 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image for Ichi impresses, even with the knowledge that it's released day-and-date with a Blu-ray presentation. The cinematography, arranged in a familiar fashion to Yoji Yamada's recent samurai pictures (Twilight Samurai, Love and Honor), emphasize slightly dusty, hazy shots that occur in wide-shot exteriors with plenty of foliage and tightly-framed interiors for conversations. That calls for the image to present pleasing contrast levels, robust coloring, and sensible depth, all of which pour through naturally in this transfer. Darker scenes do grow a bit noisier than they likely should, while a general softness coats the film through a slightly dense level of film grain. Other than that, it's satisfying on many levels -- crisply preserving the faster-paced swordplay.
To match the video, a robust Japanese 5.1 track accompanies the presentation. The clanks of sword-on-sword action ring through the soundstage with nicely-pitched highs and middle-range elements, while a few thuds trail down to the bass track. The rears mostly carry along musical accompaniment and ambiance with music and nature sounds, like rushing water and forest effects, while the front channels handle the dialogue to appropriate degrees. Overall, it's a fairly dynamic track that's free of distortion or other issues. An English 5.1 dub is also available, along with optional English subtitles.
Other than a few trailers for other FUNimation trailers and a scene selection, there's nothing else.
Ichi, another telling of the blind swordsman fable, is roughly two-thirds of a satisfying action-infused swordplay drama. It sets up decently-fleshed characters -- especially our heroine, brought to life by Ayase Haruko -- and gives us a healthy dosage of pleasing theatrics and well-crafted, speedy fight choreography. Once it tries to wrap everything up, however, sloppiness causes all that work to tumble into a mess of a conclusion, shrouded in disbelief and awkward character-crippling maneuvers. It's worth a Rental to see Ayase Haruko, well, kick ass as Ichi, but there's little to no replay value due to its resolution.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site