2009 Movie. Director: Sori. 120 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $49.98. Distributor: FUNimation.
The tale of Zatoichi is no stranger to generations of Japanese fans of samurai lore. The wandering blind masseur and swordsman, who protects the innocent and oppressed, has been a fictional character of the page, the subject of 26 films from 1962-1989, and even a television series during the earlier 70’s. Hell, even Rutger Hauer enacted the American adaptation Blind Fury in 1990. The shikomi-zue (cane sword) gripped by a deceptively feeble old man is iconic in the minds of marital artists and fans worldwide.
is the latest reimagining of this familiar story. Yet, from one glimpse of the box art your assumptions will immediately stumble. The blind swordsman is now a beautiful young woman that trudges the countryside as a poor musician. On this path she searches for her place in the world and the blind sensei that long ago taught her swordplay. However, this journey is obstructed by a town bled by extortionists, their ominous leader, and a failing samurai in need of inspiration. With each step and accurate slash, Ichi will both find what she seeks and what she truly cannot see.
Watch this movie! You won’t be surprised why Ichi has received endless acclaim. As adaptations go, it’s spot on. The essential spirit of Zatoichi is ever-present: the impoverished rags, the famous cane sword, the protection of the innocent, the town in need, and, of course, that deadly swordplay enhanced by heightened senses. Yet, Ichi has been given a dramatic subplot that effortlessly complements the expected slaying of wandering bandits and ronin thugs. The painful search for the blind sword teacher, who may be her father, paints her with an introverted coldness that often typifies great antiheroes. And Toma, the lost master swordsman, creates romantic tension that actually helps move the story to its climaxing battle.
Needless to say, a lot of films are predictable, and Ichi definitely has its predictable moments. But a good amount of anticipation over what will become of Ichi and Toma is artfully created. Taking this into account, the great swordplay, and even a classic street brawl between gangs of sword-wielding yakuza and ronin, and you’ve got a movie that just can’t disappoint.
This film also boasts a few renowned Japanese figures: Takao Osawa (Midnight Eagle), Shidou Nakamura (Letters from Iwo Jima), Haruka Ayase (famous model and now actor), and fight choreographer Hiroshi Kuze (Ran, The Twilight Samurai).
A nod definitely goes to Haruka Ayase. As Ichi, this movie entirely rests on her shoulders. She turns in an exceptional performance. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that she’s not only hot, but also purely elegant. I think I just found the title of my future autobiography: “How I Ended Up With Haruka Ayase.”
Samurai fan or not, Ichi is simply great cinema.