I first saw the teaser of ICHI back in June, it was shown before the other Haruka Ayase vehicle, CYBORG, SHE. And I was mildly intrigued by the idea of doing a gender switch on the classic Zatoichi character, of course, by the time CYBORG, SHE ended, I immediately took a liking to Haruka Ayase and made a mental note to watch this film.
It's been a busy year for the actress, having four films being released (the other two being the Koki Mitani ensemble comedy hit THE MAGIC HOUR, and the latest HAPPY FLIGHT, which came out recently and I may watch soon) And I think she is a very good actress when given the right material (I was first introduced to her via the hideous J-dorama TATTA HITOTSU NO KOI たったひとつの恋 JUST ONE LOVE, which I stopped watching after 2 episodes, and I didn't think she was that promising. A mistake.)
Gradually, I found out more about ICHI, learning that it's the first live-action film from Fumihiko Sori, the director of 2002's PING PONG (he also did last year's animated feature VEXILLE, which I haven't watched). I watched PING PONG only a few weeks ago on late-night TV in Tokyo, and that movie was fabulous enough to increase my anticipation of this movie.
I'm not that well-versed in the Zatoichi mythos, having only seen Takeshi Kitano's 2003 version (which I really enjoyed), and having some vague memories of the older black and white films that my dad used to watch long ago during my childhood. And because once again, I was watching the film without subtitles, there were many guesswork involved, I had thought that this film was a re-imagining, so it never occurred to me that this film could be a partial continuation of the previous films until I read Todd Brown's review on Twitch, and that the female protagonist was being trained by the original Zatoichi, who is possibly her dad.
The plot of this film is similar to what I remembered from Beat Takeshi's Zatoichi. The wandering protagonist goes to a village to make a living by performing music, but finds her normal day job interrupted when she unwittingly gets involved in a Yakuza war.
The disfigured main bad guy Banki is played by Shidou Nakamura, and he makes a lot of crazy faces, like the bad guy character played by Koichi Sato in SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO (Riki Takeuchi's also in the film as Banki's second-in-command, and I agree that he was definitely engaged in a crazy-face contest with Shidou). Yosuke Kubozuka, main actor in PING PONG (and that was probably the most recent film I've seen with him in it, I actually haven't seen anything he did after he fell off from the balcony of his condo back in 2004), plays the son of the local yakuza, who is pissed that he's helpless against Banki's gang. (before I read Twitch's review, I thought he was the son of the sheriff or something, was never aware that villages are protected by Yakuza) There's also a subplot of a useless and bumbling wandering samurai played by Takao Osawa who befriends Ichi, and can never seem to draw his sword out of his sheath due to some tragic incident, and a motherless little boy who serves as Ichi's guide.
What I thought about this film, after I walked out from the cinema last week, was that it was crafted very well by Sori. It was beautifully photographed, the stark snowy landscape adding upon the tragic and isolation of the Ichi character, and certain shots are composed in a very artful and unconventional manner, they really show show Sori's indie roots, separating him from most bland and boring TV-trained directors I've seen recently in Japan. Aside from the gorgeous cinematography, I also noticed that Haruka Ayase was also framed in a way that most shots accentuate her sharp features (her face is normally tilted in a slight angle). I guess that's the thing about watching foreign language films without subtitles, since I'm not busy reading the subtitles, I get to pay attention to other details.
Aside from the climatic battle sequence, each action scene happens in brief spurts, but choreographed very well. So it is very thrilling whenever Ichi's forced to draw her sword from her cane. However, this film is quite a downer, and Ichi's a perpetually lonely and tragic figure. Much unlike previous portrayals of the Blind Samurai character, whom I remember more as a cheery, laidback rogue whose blindness can sometimes be used for comedic purposes. Not in Ichi's case, especially when towards the end of the film, there is an extended series of flashbacks that show her past, and makes the character so tragic it's unbearable... sigh.
I think this is Sori's homage to this classic genre, so instead of loading the film with anachronisms, or throwing in nice little tap dancing moments, he follows genre conventions respectfully and with fondness, throwing in archetypes and predictable plot developments (Banki fights honourably, but ultimately he's 100% evil). In the end, I find it a little difficult to like the film, I truly appreciated it for the filmmaking, for the production values, for the performances, but I wasn't blown away. The film didn't do well at the domestic box-office, but I still think it's a film worth admiring. But of course, I rather see Sori inventing something new and unexpected like he did with his debut feature PING PONG.