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Original Title:

Japan 2008

Chambara, Drama

Fumihiko Sori

Haruka Ayase
Takao Osawa
Yosuke Kubozuka
Shido Nakamura
Kazuma Chiba
Daishiro Hano
Yuko Endo
Akira Emoto
Masaki Katou
Mitsuki Koga
Yoshihiro Ishizuka

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Story: Ichi (Haruka Ayase) is a blind wandering musician, who has often been visited by a sword fighter when being a child. He taught her a special style of sword fighting. Now, she roams the country searching for this man who she also believes to be her father. On her journey she is attacked by some members of the Banki gang, but the samurai Toma Fujihira (Takao Osawa) comes to her rescue. Unfortunately, he isn't really the knight in shining armor and so Ichi has to get rid of the gangsters to protect him. From that day on, the two travel the country together, even though against Ichi's will. One day they arrive in a small town that is terrorized by the Banki gang. Ichi beats some of the thugs during another attack of them, however, Toma is now thought to be the new savior of the town, so that he is hired as the bodyguard of the local town chief and his hot-headed son Toraji Shirakawa (Yosuke Kubozuka). Banki (Shido Nakamura), the leader of the gangster organisation, recognizes the sword fighting style of Ichi and is using all his power to get her into his hands. Ichi, too, is interested in meeting Banki, since he apparently must have met her father before.

Review: The story around Zatoichi, a blind wandering samurai, has been put on celluloid several times already. Especially during the 60s and 70s there was a whole movie series revolving around this extraordinary hero. After Takeshi Kitano's recent revival of the blind master of sword fighting, director Fumihiko Sori ("Ping Pong") also tries to put into perspective his version of the well-known story. However, his protagonist is a blind FEMALE sword fighter! Which brings up the question what this is supposed to achieve? Maybe the story is supposed to be beefed up by that, being more modern and hip? The decision of the director to feature a female protagonist has received quite some doubts about the movie's quality by fans of the series, yet there is actually no reason to worry. "Ichi" doesn't destroy the image of the original, by being an embarrassing modern version of it, but stands as a well-done homage to those chambara-movies and at the same time "Ichi" manages to stand on his own two feet.

"Ichi" already differs strongly from the original by making the heroine of the story, young Ichi, a tragic character who is looking for her supposed father and her own inner self. She is reserved and cold on the outside, problems of the people around her seemingly don't affect her and she tries to avoid any confrontation as much as possible. Naturally, that doesn't work so well with her good looks and so she proves everyone that she can be a fierce sword fighter when being drawn into a fight. In pale-colored flashbacks we are introduced to her tragic background as the movie progresses and therefore it shouldn't be a surprise that "Ichi" sometimes feels like a drama. That's a welcome change and bestows something special upon the film, especially since there is more work on a character level than we are used to see from such movies. This supposed strength isn't made good use of at all time, though.

The biggest problem with "Ichi" is that it doesn't keep up the same tone/atmosphere or most of all a steady pacing. Therefore, the drama doesn't really work out the way it could and the development of the characters seems a bit disjointed at times. Especially surprising is that Ichi at some point more and more takes a backseat, whereas it becomes apparent that Toma is the actual protagonist of the story. Moreover, supporting characters like Toraji suddenly step up into the spotlight. This doesn't seem appropriate, even though Toma gets his own background story and Toraji may be the character that is portrayed in the most true and natural way in the film. However, isn't Ichi supposed to be the star of the movie? Well, to some degree she might be, but not at any point and this decision of the director seems rather questionable to put it mildly, even the more as the title suggests that she is the heroine.

It's good to see that Ichi isn't just a female Zatoichi, but that her father/master is with all probability - his name is never mentioned - the legendary sword fighter Zatoichi himself! This way the two stories are linked in a nice manner, which should also go well with the fans. Moreover, the sword fighting scenes really don't need to hide behind the original, even though they are scattered throughout the movie in a rather unbalanced way and also could have been more numerous. However, the blood, being computer-generated most of the time, is made wonderful use of as it sprays over the screen in various slow motion sequences, in an almost aesthetic fashion and not to a small amount.
Acting-wise we get solid achievements from everyone. Haruka Ayase could already work on her uncaring acting in "Cyborg Girl" and that experience without a doubt benefits her portrayal of the blind fighter. Still, she doesn't deliver anything special, although she manages to convey the dramatic scenes in an appropriate way, too. Takao Osawa ("Sky High", "Aragami", "Crying Out Love in the Center of the World") achieves a bit more, but he also has done better already. Only Yosuke Kubozuka ("Ping Pong", "Samurai Resurrection") can stand out as the freedom fighter.

There are also some problems with the villians, who are just too clichéloaden for its own good. Anyway, even more sad is that the narration loses its focus too often and therefore restricts the drama of being really moving at some points. And this even though the soundtrack by Michael Edwards and Lisa Gerrard fits to the movie very well and serves as a refreshingly different and sentimantal film score. The cinematography by Keiji Hashimoto also deserves some words of praise. The pictures are oftentimes very beautiful to look at and make you dive into the movie in no time. Therefore, it seems a bit of a lost opportunity what director Fumihiko Sori delivers in the end, because he really had a nice variation of the Zatoichi theme in his head, it's just that the unfocused adaption and lacking character work, which just had to be better implemented in a movie that puts so much emphasis on the protagonists, taint the overall picture. Even if nothing more "Ichi" still is a nice and tranquil variation of the famous story resolving around Japan's beloved blind samurai.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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