ICHI THE BLIND SWORDSWOMAN (2008) is a redux of Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman; the classic Jidai Geki TV series. Directed by Fumihiko Sori, (Vexille, "Ping Pong"), with screenplay by Shimosawa Kan; this film switches the gender of the lead character, has significant improvements but it also lacks some of the original's strengths. "Ichi" stars beautiful Japanese bikini model/actress Ayase Haruka, and this is her follow up role to "Cyborg She" (which I will review later). The film is a departure from the stylistic style of Kitamura's "AZUMI" and is a welcome return for director Sori to his action roots after the fun-filled "Ping Pong".
Ichi (Haruka Ayase) is a beautiful, blind musician who travels this Edo period Japan with her traditional Japanese guitar and a walking stick--well, a walking stick at first impression, but inside, she hides a razor sharp katana. Ichi may be blind, but she is also a skilled swordswoman. In her quest to find the man who helped bring her up, she comes across swindlers, rapists, gangsters who want to take advantage of her disability. Ichi fights back with her remarkable sword fighting skills. Sometime during her travels, she meets up with a cowardly, dishonored samurai named Touma (Takao Osawa, Aragami) who she ends up saving from angry gamblers affiliated with the Banki Gang. The pair unwittingly become entangled in a turf war between the Shirakawa and Banki clans battling for supremacy in a small inn town of Bitou. Ichi may find the answers she is looking for in the person of the leader (played by Shido Nakamura) of the Banki group of cutthroats--and the resolution of the conflict may reveal the fate of the man she is looking for.
"Ichi" is a film that is very commercial in its appeal. It has the charm to attract the younger generation as well as samurai aficionados, and to electrify the male testosterone because of Haruka Ayase. This actress is beautiful, and although she barely wears any make up, with this role has her wearing rags, her close ups are enough to add excitement and you can tell that she has a model-like statuesque figure. Ayase became well acclimated to the action genre after "Cyborg She" and she does have the presence that can grab attention.
The film may have the somewhat stereotypical themes of redemption, revenge and compassion as is quite familiar with jidai geki films, and I don't deny that the film has certain weaknesses in its premise. I don't mind stereotypical storylines, so long as it plays its strengths well. Ichi was brought up by a Goze group of blind performers and she was exiled when she was sexually abused. The Goze faction of musicians are an odd lot, their rules are certainly fleshed out but I was left asking for the reasons as to why such rules would apply. Yes, "Ichi" does have a lot of emotions going for it, and her links to a certain blind swordsman does manage to entice our attention. The problem is, the film is filled with over-the-top characters that threatens to overshadow its tone. Director Sori is responsible for such anime hits such as "Vexille" and "Appleseed", and you can see the costume designs of our villains are very anime-inspired. Also, the bumbling samurai played by Takao Osawa has his interesting qualities, I can buy his reasons for not wanting to use his sword but this fact overstays its welcome as there were times in the last act that I almost screamed "Draw your sword, dammit!" Of course there is a developing romance between Touma and Ichi, but the film doesn't develop this too much.
Well, does "Ichi" deliver in its action sequences? Yes and no. Yes, the fights are very cool to watch and they are quite kinetic in its execution. There are also a very good number of them, Ichi is on display as she quickly dispatches her assailants with quick thrusts and stabs, complete with very nice posturing, "Ichi" provides great eye candy. There are also a significant use of slow motion to display Ayase's moves--this would normally bother me, but I am willing to forgive its use this time around. Director Sori also doesn't make Ayase's character seem too invincible, Ichi does have her female vulnerabilities, as skilled as she is, she is a woman and has her limits. Ichi has a strong advantage when she fights in the dark, but may have more of a handicap when there are some loud noises. As for why I also said no, well, the fights may look cool, but they were lacking some credible impact in its narrative. The script hampers the action sequences, because while it does attempt to carry emotion, it doesn't feel climactic. I guess the set ups were also too simple and they can be very routine.
The cinematography is quite gorgeous and accompanied by a somber, moody score, the film does manage to impress me in the way it plays each scene. The film's color palette leans towards the tone of Earth colors as with most jidai geki films and the atmosphere does resemble a Kurosawan samurai film, with the wind blowing dirt meant to signify a finale. The set designs are also good, they are very similar to Kitamura's "Azumi". Director Sori brought along his buddies responsible for "Ping Pong", Shido Nakamura and Yosuke Kunozuka performed well, but it just felt like a step backward when compared to their previous film together.
Ultimately, "ICHI" won't be one unforgettable jidai geki film, but the film does have its charm and the action scenes are good enough for "hack and slash" feature. Plus, there is the absolutely stunning Haruka Ayase who is just so damn attractive who roams around feudal Japan, slicing and dicing her way to her quest. The film closes in a manner that leaves it open for a sequel. Despite the film's flaws, I found it quite entertaining. Don't expect a film very faithful to its roots but just be along for the ride. This "Zatoichi" re-imagining will not make a dent on the classic status of Shintaro Katsu's original but thankfully it is a good enough diversion.
Recommended! [3 ½ Stars]
Video/Audio: 1.78 ratio anamorphic widescreen. Nice clean transfer from Ikano Fielm (Malaysia). The film is sharp with restrained colors, favorable to earth colors. The 5.1 Dolby Digital track is strong and powerful. The English Subtitles are good but sometimes they scroll too fast.
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