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Ichi (2009, Japan)

23/03/2011

Director: Fumihiko Sori    Starring: Haruka Ayase, Shido Nakamura, Yosuke Kubozuka

There have been many films made based on the character of Zatoichi, a blind masseur who conceals his deadly skill with a blade as effectively as he disguises his samurai sword in his walking cane. His first appearance on film in 1962 spawned a multitude of sequels, a tv series and a variety of adaptations (the American made Rutger Hauer vehicle Blind Fury springs to mind). Ichi follows in this tradition, maintaining the period Japanese setting but replacing the ageing masseur with a young, female musician.

In this version, Ichi (Haruka Asaye) roams the countryside in search of the blind swordsman who taught her how to fight. On her travels she rescues the apparent bumbling idiot Toma Fujihira (Takao Ohsawa) from a gang of murderous thugs. A local Yakuza family give Toma the credit for defeating the gang and hire him as a bodyguard to protect them from the villainous Banki and his henchmen who are terrorising the town. The situation rapidly escalates into all out warfare between the Yakuza and the Banki-To gang until Ichi and Toma are left fighting for their lives.

As a straight up samurai action flick it works extremely well. The storyline is perhaps a little bit predictable but it contains all the elements you would expect from the genre and the set pieces are well choreographed. There seems to be a little bit of cheating when it comes to Ichi’s fighting, her sword work being shot in such a way that you see very little, her speed and accuracy often inferred by editing and camera movement rather than being explicitly shown. Whether this is because Haruka Asaye’s martial skills weren’t up to snuff or was intended as an artistic flourish is unclear but it is occasionally disappointing, especially as the rest of the action is actually pretty good.  

There is an anime dynamic at work in the film. Bright colours, fast cutting and larger than life characters abound. The blu ray transfer is absolutely gorgeous. The vibrancy of the visuals is an interesting juxtaposition to the fact that Ichi cannot see and not the only element that serves to highlight her predicament. Thematically the film deals in hidden depths and the dangers of taking things at face value. Toma appears incompetent and stupid but his bumbling is a symptom of a guilty conscience that prevents him from realising his potential. The Yakuza are desperate to maintain the illusion of control when in fact they are at the mercy of Banki. Banki himself is a formerly noble samurai who has fallen into bitterness and evil ways as a result of the alienation he feels due to terrible injuries that have left him disfigured. In every respect the idea seems to be that we all take our eyesight for granted and trust it to guide us through the world but we should be wary because while seeing may be believing, our eyes do not always see the truth.

It’s an obvious route to take when dealing with a character who is blind and is the pivotal trait of every incarnation of Zatoichi I’ve seen but is no less effective for it. The idea of not simply accepting the facade we are offered as the truth without applying all of our senses and intuition to it and questioning the reality of a situation is one that fits in with my personal philosophy on life and perhaps why I enjoy the Zatoichi stories so much. Even the Rutger Hauer version. Granted, this incarnation lacks some of the grace and discipline prevalent in some of the finer examples of samurai cinema but it’s a whole bundle of fun and definitely worth a look.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 27/03/2011 03:04

    Good review!

    I was firtunate to see this film on the big screen a few years ago when it was included in the yearly Japanese Film Festival they have here in Melbourne. I enjoyed it very much.

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