The opening scenes of Ichi, and indeed most of the first hour of the film, are so well-assembled the film itself seems to be holding its breath. A woman swathed in heavy furs stumbles her way through falling snow thick enough to drown in. She stumbles, and loses her cane, and from the way she gropes for it we can see that cane is her lifeline—not just in this storm, but every other time as well. She’s blind.
Next shot. She stands at the door of a house—an inn, maybe. She plays her shamisen, waiting for someone inside to hear. They open the door. They squint at her. Shoo her off. Slam the door in her face. She stands there for another long moment before dragging herself off into the snow again. This movie, I thought, is in no hurry: it’s willing to linger and make us feel what this woman feels.
And so the first half or so of Ichi unfolds, with the care and patience of a great samurai-era character study like Kurosawa’s Red Beard or Takashi Miike’s Sabu. Everything, from the elegiac and beautiful score by former Dead Can Dance singer Lisa Gerrard to even the abrupt bursts of violence (they’re the punctuation, not the sentences themselves), seems just right. Maybe this would turn out to be the samurai story that they never quite seem to be able to make as of late. Then the movie begins to walk backwards in its own steps, to retreat from being really great and settling instead for being merely pretty good. But hey, that’s a lot more than we end up with most of the time.
Ichi is based on, but not a direct remake of, a long-running franchise in Japan that has already been reinvented more than a few times. Whether novels, TV show or movies, they all revolved around the character of a wandering blind masseur whose rough-hewn charm and astonishing skill with a hidden blade made him a hero of the downtrodden and outcast. For decades on end he was played by iconic tough guy Shintaro Katsu, and Media Blasters in the U.S. has imported many of the films (and the whole TV series) on DVD. They’re all good; some are great. And most recently, the equally-iconic funnyman and director Takeshi Kitano did his own spin on the Zatoichi mythos, adding whimsy and wide-eyed wonder and tap-dancing. Yes, tap-dancing.
And now this version, directed by Fumihiko Sori—he of the flashy but vapid Vexille and the cult hit Ping Pong. I honestly wasn’t sure what his take on the material would amount to, but now that I’ve seen it twice (once on DVD, once on Blu-ray) I can say any problems with the movie are not the director’s fault. Hence what I said about that first hour, which unfolds so precisely and with such grace that I was genuinely miffed to see the film opt for such conventional, plot-driven territory. But the good stuff is very, very good indeed.
In this version, Ichi’s a woman—a goze or blind musician, much in the same way the original Ichi was a masseur and thus part of an order of such people. She (Haruka Ayase) is an outsider twice over: she once murdered a man who tried to rape her, and has since been expelled from her guild. She has been looking fruitlessly all this time for the swordsman, also blind, who taught her everything she knows (a nice tie-in back to the original series, in a sense). In her wanderings she comes across another samurai, Banki (Shidou Nakamura), outwardly brave but actually quite craven: he can’t bring himself to actually draw his sword and use it, after an accident in his youth that left his mother scarred for life.
Most of what happens in the movie doesn’t so much happen to Ichi as it happens around her. She sits, listens, observes, and only very occasionally acts. The sound of someone pulling a weapon is one of the few things that causes her to act: it turns her into a killing machine, where the one who made such a noise is instantly destroyed. There’s a great scene early in the movie where she’s jumped by several guys at once, and the movie uses slow motion to show us how she’s like a chess master who knows how to counter all the classic opening moves. (For once we have a movie where slow motion is used intelligently, when it is so often over-used or made into a mere gimmick.)
Banki and Ichi end up in a town like the little burg in Kurosawa's Yojimbo, where two competing factions of criminal gang are warring to take over. The resident yakuza of the town are at least halfway honorable, but the other gang’s that much more underhanded and brutal, and honor loses out to cunning and savagery each time. The local guys hire Banki as their resident bodyguard—something they do after they mistake one of Ichi’s lightning kills for his own handiwork. He doesn’t have the nerve to own up to his duplicity, and soon that will cost them both dearly. The “bad” gang could care less about such things; they’re not above terrorizing a Shogunate inspector to keep him quiet about conditions within the town—which they do in a scene that’s somehow both spectacular and irritating. Spectacular, because it’s a great example of how the movie’s eye for action direction is quite splendid. Irritating, because the whole bit of Banki not being able to draw his sword turns to slapstick too quickly for a movie this allegedly serious.
As I mentioned, the first hour or so is great. Then the movie begins to compound one mistake with another. The biggest flub is how it substitutes character—Ichi’s, Banki’s—with the mere grinding of plot. Most of the big buildup is towards whether or not Banki can summon the nerve to actually draw his damn sword, and when it does finally come it doesn’t feel like an epiphany, just overdue. There’s also the problem that the further we go, the more Banki’s struggle feels like something merged in from another, goofier movie. The shots of him yanking furiously at his weapon don’t simply contrast with Ichi’s grace, they downright collide with it.
The things that do work, though, work so well they almost make these things irrelevant. Almost, but not quite, because in the end the movie banks more on its premaufactured plotting than on using Ichi as a character in a story. She’s fascinating to watch, both because of Sori’s way of handling her and because of Ayase’s amazing performance. Half of the shots in the film are just her face, and she's such a naturally expressive actress (like Isabella Huppert was, or Maria Falconetti in Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc) that the film works that much more because of such things. We look at her, and we want to know more about what’s really going on there. Pity they seem to have saved most of that for another movie.
There’s two ways to sum up this up: as an entry in the Zatōichi series, and as a standalone film. In both respects Ichi’s a good movie that falls shy of being a truly great one—but it’s still more than good enough for any fan of samurai movies (or Asian films in general) to check out. It has heart and spirit where so many other movies only have blood and guts.
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