Fumihiko Sori might not be the most prolific director working in Japan today, he’s only three features under his belt since 2002, but he seems to be a man who’s passionate about picking his projects. With his debut feature Ping Pong he took a well established sporting formula and built upon its ethos with sublime imagery and beautiful characterisation, rising it above typical standards for which it earned eight nominations at the 2003 Japanese Academy Awards. After a long spell in producing, which saw him notably spend time on 2004’s Appleseed, he continued his love affair with computer assisted storytelling in 2007’s politically-driven Vexille; a film, which in contrast to Ping Pong, had all the subtlety of a hammer to the face. It seems that for the time being he’s had his fill of animation as he now sets his sights on placing a new spin upon one of Japan’s most legendary Chanbara figures.
Ichi sees Sori take on the works of author Kan Shimosawa, the creator of Zatoichi, which subsequently spawned 26 films and a television series starring Shintaro Katsu over the course of almost thirty years. Takeshi Kitano successfully revitalised the series fifteen years later with his own take on the blind masseur, and for a short while it seemed that another instalment might have been on the cards. It wasn’t to be (though it should be noted that Katori Shingo is set to resume starring duties next year), but the spirit of Zatoichi is alive and well in Sori’s Ichi.
Travelling the country in search of a blind swordsman who raised her as a child and passed on his fighting skills to her before mysteriously leaving her life, Ichi (Haruka Ayase) is constantly struggling to deal with those eager to take advantage of her disability. During her quest she encounters and is threatened by a brutal gang of bandits . Another passing wanderer, Toma (Takao Osawa), steps in to rescue Ichi but finds he is the one being saved when she reveals a samurai sword hidden inside her walking stick and effortlessly dispatches their attackers. The slaying of the bandits brings the wrath of their leader, Banki (Shido Nakamura), down upon Ichi and Toma and they reluctantly become embroiled in a battle for control between Banki’s gang and the local yakuza. However, Ichi’s initial feelings about her involvement changes when she discovers Banki may know the whereabouts of the man she is seeking.
Sori has found the perfect area to tap into in order to fully realise our new heroine in her surrounds. Set during the Edo period, it briefly tells of performers known as “Goze”, specifically blind women who performed folk songs in urban areas, and today exist in far smaller numbers. They were purportedly forbidden to enjoy any kind of normal life; having known a lover for instance was enough to see a Goze kicked out of house, and in such a predicament Ichi finds herself travelling from town to town with her Samisen, adhering to strict rules and earning pittance for her troubles. It seems early on then that the director’s intent is not only to set up a character for us to sympathise with, but to also adopt a no-nonsense attitude in illustrating such lower-class discrimination during an adverse period in history.
Though pieces of social commentary are welcome, Sori knows well to keep things fairly reigned in. The gender switch in our lead protagonist is refreshing; while indeed she has a sorry past she also has the good fortune of being trained in the art of the sword, which sees her as anything but helpless. This opens up a strong sense of female empowerment with every moment she’s forced to draw her weapon, as pained as she might look in taking another’s life. Sori balances Ichi’s tragic past and her ultimate skill as a fighter rather well, not forgetting of course that this is just as much an action film designed to stay true to its roots. Indeed it’s violent, not overly so, but there are moments to savour and the director, while not quite managing to match Kitano’s overall visual flair previously, at least pulls off the CG blood-spraying a little more effectively; a director who since Ping Pong has shown how to employ CG unobtrusively in a manner to complement the overall story.
And, as with Zatoichi, we’ve a character here who is disabled, yet not above helping others in need, which sets into motion a story that’s all too familiar. Surprisingly Sori doesn’t squarely devote all of his attention to Ichi. Just as much of the film follows Toma, who is facing up to his past demons in learning to become a true warrior. The director divides these two characteristics pretty well, doing enough to flesh out back stories and bring us well rounded individuals so that we might care about any potential romanticism. The inner struggle of these lead characters also help toward building up a climactic showdown involving two rival factions and bring events to a poignant close, which is undoubtedly set to please fans of old Zatoichi and Kurosawa.
Granted it’s clichéd, it features all the usual stock archetypes, and the overall message is one that’s entirely expected, but Ichi is helmed with confidence and performed with conviction, working suitably as a fond homage as much as it does a standalone piece. Former Gravure idol, turned actress Haruka Ayase has been steadily impressing over the past six or so years, drifting between television drama and feature films. She’s tackled various genres which has enabled her to show off her range, though Ichi is a bit of a departure and sees her put in one of her most understated performances to date. She doesn’t over-sentimentalise, allowing her wistful looks to do all the talking, while in regards to her turn as an action star her beguiling mannerisms show that she can give some of her male contemporaries a good run for their money. Takao Osawa makes for a likeable co-star, injecting some much needed humour along the way, while not losing sight of Toma’s inner turmoil, and Yosuke Kubozuka, who frankly isn’t on our screens nearly enough, makes for a strong yakuza figure. Finally, Shido Nakamura and Riki Takeuchi delightfully take gurning to new levels as Ichi’s fearsome foes. There’s little faulting this diverse and energetic cast, who rise above a standard formula and help put Sori back on the right track.
Ichi will be running for two weeks at the ICA from July 7th and is presented by Manga Entertainment. For booking details please visit the following page:
Ichi at the ICA