Movie Review – Ichi (2008)
Imagine if you will twenty years from now that some young hot shot director will suddenly get hit by lightning and decide to tackle a remake of Indiana Jones with all the stylistic trappings intact except for one tectonic change being that the lead character will undergo a gender swap and become female. It’s one thing to reboot or reimagine a long running series by casting younger actors to fill the iconic roles but it’s another thing entirely to drastically shake up the formula by changing the title character’s sex. How would audiences react? How would a sex change redefine the character? Whatever the result the risks are enormous.
Director Fumihiko Sori has decided to do just that with his new film Ichi taking the extremely popular and immensely classic character of the blind swordsman Zatoichi and reversing genders. For the uninitiated there have been 26 movies starting from 1962 and a long running 112 episode television series featuring this character showing just how ingrained he is in Japanese pop culture. No doubt Fumihiko Sori is taking a massive risk here by even attempting such a project.
However, daunting task aside, Sori manages the near impossible by crafting a melancholy tale that is more of a side-story than remake that adds to the Zatoichi mythos without taking a hatchet to the source material. Simply put, Sori doesn’t really make Zatoichi a woman but pens a narrative that basically features a young blind girl named Ichi (Haruka Ayase) who may or may not be his daughter. What is clear though from numerous flashbacks is that Zatoichi indeed raises her and teaches her the deadly art of Iaidō (or Battōjutsu) that features a unique back-handed grip. Every so often Zatoichi would go off on a wandering journey and come back later to see Ichi making their short time together more meaningful. During his time away Ichi is trained by her peers as a goze, a kind of blind wandering woman who pleases clients either through her song or through more carnal pleasures. However, one day Zatoichi goes off on a journey and never returns leaving Ichi heartbroken thus she takes it upon herself to travel Japan in order to ascertain his fate.
The narrative itself is a paean to classic samurai movies or even American Westerns featuring a besieged town under constant threat by a gang of nefarious ex-samurai who constantly swoop down and take what they want through brute force. The men of the village are too weak to defend themselves alone and require outside assistance. Obviously, it’s up to our young heroine to take them down and you can guess that somewhere in the mix there’s going to be a massive showdown taking place amongst the town’s deserted streets as wisps of wind blow dust artistically over the frame to heighten the tension. About the only thing missing are tumbleweeds bouncing along the dirt strewn path.
What is clear though is that director Fumihiko Sori has appropriated elements of past Zatoichi films and melded them with his new female lead in order to create a wonderfully layered narrative that feels wholly fresh and original without being too beholden to the original series. While Ichi is still a master swordswoman her character is almost the polar opposite to her famous father who was always a kind of boozing gambler masseuse who took pleasure in singing and playing music. Here Ichi is incredibly introverted and downright morose not seemingly able to enjoy anything that goes on around her. Just watch as she’s hired to play music and her first choice of song is one that would be more fitting for a funeral causing her employer to chastise her to play something more uplifting. Her outlook on life itself is incredibly grim and she moves throughout the film as if carrying a gigantic weight upon her soul. As the film progresses we’re given insight into her tragic past that further dives the overall tone even deeper into the emotional abyss and works to make Ichi a superlatively sympathetic character as we understand exactly why she’s so taciturn.
Right from the get go the film would clearly fail if Ichi was miscast but all worries aside Haruka Ayase is downright eerie in the role. Some might initially be taken aback by casting such a beautiful idol in the part and chalk it up to weird otaku styling or cheap fan service but thankfully she’s up to the job here. For the record there’s nothing remotely sexual about her performance as Sori focuses more on her angular features and forlorn visage than her physique that is hidden under tattered clothing. Since Ichi is immensely reticent there’s no need for her to lapse into any sort of comedy as her character is just downright grim. Yet for such a jaded character Ayase injects exactly the right amount of humanity into the role never lapsing into blank robotic staring and she pulls off the physical aspects of her character with aplomb.
While a blind man dressed in rags can be a deceivingly disarming sight the visual of a demure blind girl in the same attire is even more beguiling since no one in their right mind would expect her to be skilled with a sword. It also helps that the action choreography is done by Hiroshi Kuze who Japanese cinephiles will recognize as previously working with Akira Kurosawa and the more recent Twilight Samurai movie. Since this sort of swordplay is based on lightning fast sword strikes don’t expect something as overblown as dueling lightsabers as encounters are over in seconds which adds immensely to the realistic atmosphere and indeed Ayase moves with great fluidity especially in those sequences where she has to fell multiple targets with one long interconnected movement.
The movie is further buttressed by able supporting characters chief of which is Toma Fujihira (Takao Osawa) a happy-go-lucky swordsman who suffers from the rather debilitating trait, for a warrior anyways, of being unable to unsheathe his katana. Yet he does have an innate sense of honor and the story devotes more than enough screen time to his budding relationship with Ichi. Of course, romance is hinted upon but more so than that his cheery outlook manages to rub off on her as she’s finally given a sense of purpose to her dreary life.
About the only misstep in terms of acting comes from the normally reliable Shido Nakamura who plays the evil Banki, head of the criminal gang who comes off as a drugged up kabuki performer with a penchant for excessive hamminess. We get that his character is tortured as well but his overblown facial contortions and oily used car salesman routine is a bit too comical. Not to mention, the costume designer who outfitted him in that bright red attire replete with a feathered mask should have their head examined as Banki comes off as a snarling rooster instead of intelligent ex-samurai. You’d more than likely find people laughing at his choice of wardrobe than cowering in fear at his machismo.
Fumihiko Sori has really paid attention to past genre films and he thankfully follows the blueprint here without resorting to over-exorbitant modern cinematic techniques. Therefore his direction is incredibly grounded and feels like a samurai movie of yore which focuses on a long buildup of the characters and their circumstances only punctuated with quick bouts of violence. The cinematography works wonders with the tonal ebbs and flows with some gloriously shot winter sections foreshadowing Ichi’s tortured past with bright colours seen within the forest scenery signifying brighter days to come. It also helps that the film’s soundtrack is so enlightening done by, of all people, Lisa Gerrard of Gladiator fame (she co-composed with Hans Zimmer). From the exceedingly melancholic and haunting opening vocals to the tense action cues it acts as the film’s emotional metronome greatly enhancing the atmosphere.
For all its positives Sori does stumble a bit by having the roguish Toma Fujihira be a better fighter than Ichi. It’s almost as if Sori doesn’t fully trust his concept of making the lead female and hedges his bet by concocting a formula that forces her to accept Toma’s greater ability. Indeed, as the plot plays out it’s exceedingly obvious that Ichi cannot single-handedly defeat Banki and is indeed outclassed by him with stunning ease. This basically ends up devaluing her character and I have an inkling feminists might feel that Sori is unfortunately perpetuating the stereotypical damsel in distress angle. I’m no expert in the Zatoichi mythos as I have not seen most of the 26 previous movies but I doubt that he was at any time seen to be seriously lacking in skill compared to any of his arch villains and required serious assistance in taking them out.
Then again for the most part Ichi is an incredibly rewarding film that takes the old Zatoichi framework yet builds upon it in ways that seem both plausible and exciting. It’s too bad the movie did not find much of an audience as it could not break out with the younger crowd, instead drawing in older fans of the original. It would have been an intriguing opportunity to see an eventual meeting of the old roguish Zatoichi character hooking up with his withdrawn “daughter” and wonder how it would unfold. By making his lead a striking young woman with emotional baggage, Fumihiko Sori has crafted a beautifully haunting film that though still anchored as a traditional action film gives it a feel all its own. It might not be in the same league as the original series but its inherent charm and genuine emotions in some ways surpass those found in previous installments.
*** out of ****
2008, Japan, 120 Minutes, PG-12, Shochiku Company
Directed by Fumihiko Sori
Based on Characters created by Kan Shimosawa
Produced by Toshiaki Nakazawa
Original Music by Michael Edwards, Lisa Gerrard
Cinematography by Keiji Hashimoto
Ichi: Haruka Ayase
Banki: Shido Nakamura
Toraji Shirakawa: Yôsuke Kubozuka
Toma Fujihira: Takao Osawa
Blind vaudevillian: Usagi Kôno
Blind vaudevillian: Eiko Kotake
Thug: Toshiki Masuda
© 2009 The Galactic Pillow