Ichi is one of those films that I’ve been meaning to tackle for some time. The look, the feel, the mood, and the mythological elements are all of undeniable Asian influence. Yes there are undefeatable principles at play within that span beyond the swordplay and action elements in the foreground. Before we look at the excellent philosophical tones of the picture, let’s get the hard facts out of the way.
Coming in at a 120-minute runtime, Ichi consists of the full-length feature film on a single disc housed within a standard clamshell DVD case. The show wears an appropriate if not slightly conservative Restricted ® rating due to violent imagery, swordplay, digital gore and a healthy dose of character-driven drama.
Language options are typical sub & dub meaning both the original Japanese vocal track is present as well the choice of an English dub (either presented in 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound) with the option of running English subtitles available with either vocal track.
The story, which has to be watched to be fully understood (or appreciated for that matter), goes something like this: Ichi, the female incarnation of the legendary blind swordsman Zatoichi, is herself a blind master of the blade and roams about town with her shamisen (a three-stringed Japanese guitar) in a mission to locate the man who helped raise her. Alone the way she happens upon no shortage of unsavory characters (rapists, thieves, and hustlers) looking to take advantage of her.
Ichi is no pushover, as the baddies soon discover in dramatic visual style, and defends herself with spectacular swordplay time and time again. Shot in a blend of slow and regular motion segments, and with digital blood spurting wildly, the film is a testament to the charms of Asian cinema (and calls to mind some of Quentin Tarantino’s frequent homage in films such as “Kill Bill”).
As the prose develops, so too does the cast increase with Ichi herself gaining the companionship of a young male traveling partner despite the fact that she is by far the better sword wielder. Haruka Ayase’s performance as Ichi seems to depend heavily upon the viewer’s expectations going into the film. I found her to be convincing enough and somehow proud despite her attire of rags but it appears as though fans of Shintaro Katsu's original Japanese television incarnation of the mythos are quite divided on this casting choice.
Villains, as is par for the course in these situations, are a bit over the top in my opinion (Nakamura Shidou in particular). However, while this may be a large detractor in an American big budget film, the Japanese have a habit of making the unbelievable believable through gritty ambiance and dialog that doesn’t oversimplify character motivations.
Shooting locations and cinematography are particularly noteworthy for their massive scope and stunning vistas (particularly some of the snow segments, which can send a chill through even the most well-wrapped blanketed viewer).
The downside is that this simply isn’t a piece of Asian cinema that will capture and hold the attention of the casual viewer. The pacing and plotting often become a bit bogged down upon themselves with an excessive of moments of silent reflection, brooding sighs, and artistic framing. For the most part this all works, but there will invariably be those a bit put-off by the pace fluctuations throughout (especially those viewers accustomed to the fast-cut American method of contemporary filmmaking).
The sound score is perhaps the biggest surprise with some really nice keys that go a long way in complementing the whimsical backgrounds.In all, the picture works best when approached as a visually striking romp through a fairly historically accurate setting. Digging too deeply into the mythos seems to reveal complaints in many forms and the cast is a bit too inconsistent to win over the masses. Perhaps such complaints sound harsh, but the truth of the matter is that there is a lot of entertainment to be found here so long as you don’t let expectations of grandeur bury it.
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