Ichi Review

When Takeshi Kitano reinvented cinema’s most famous blind action hero: Zatoichi for his 2003 feature of the same name, fans were hoping a new franchise would be born for contemporary audiences to enjoy, but while Takashi Miike took a shot with a stage play that was broadcast in Japan in 2008 we have been left wanting for new Zatoichi filmy treats. As a consolation prize, Ping Pong director Fumihiko Sori has attempted a spin-off of sorts with Ichi, which this time has a pretty blind heroine at its centre. Rising pop/drama princess Haruka Ayase plays Ichi a disgraced blind singer wonderingly homelessly from village to village searching for an important figure from her past. Along the way she reluctantly befriends an earnest wandering samurai named Toma, who follows Ichi into a village where an honourable Yakuza group are locked in dispute with a ruthless bandit group led by evil sword genius, Banki. When Ichi discovers that Banki is acquainted with the person she’s searching for and Toma is hired by the Yakuza as a bodyguard, a bloody confrontation with the Banki gang become inevitable.

The storyline for Ichi is pretty generic, which in itself isn’t a problem considering most of the original Zatoichi films followed a simple “village in dispute” plotline with one group being suppressed by another. The problem here is that the characterisation is either extremely understated or excessively overstated. There’s no middle ground, the good guys are rather bland and the bad guys look like wannabe drag queens with grotesque facial gurning and maniacal cackles. Don’t get me wrong it’s a well performed film from a star studded and talented cast, but what made those generic plotlines in the original Zatoichi films was Shintarô Katsu’s utterly charming and charismatic performance/ characterisation of Zatoichi: a big hearted, crafty rogue who never got boring across over 20 films. Ichi in comparison is a derivative repressed fatalist with no real charisma of her own.

What redeems Ichi is Sori’s handling of the drama: the bonds formed between the characters, and in particular the back story of the heroine, which is deftly related through the use of subtly stylised flashbacks. The big reveal about the person Ichi is searching for is particularly well handled and should raise a smile in fans of Katsu’s Zatoichi. Dramatics are also significantly boosted by Lisa Gerrard’s beautiful soundtrack. The action sequences also help, Sori ensures there’s enough swordplay to fill out two hours and, while he doesn’t direct action as dynamically as Takeshi Kitano nor match the technical action of Katsu’s franchise, the set pieces are straight forward enough and suitably driven by the drama. Sori’s most overtly stylish touch is the sound design, with a number of fight sequences where Sori exaggerates subjective sound to excellent effect. Still the action doesn’t have anywhere near the verve Sori demonstrated in Ping Pong, and Ichi itself seems relatively inert next to such an energetic debut. Ultimately Ichi is an involving, well made action drama - it’s just not a particularly exciting one!

Kevin Gilvear has written a more in-depth review for the theatrical release of Ichi here.

The Disc: I reviewed Manga UK’s release of Origin: Spirits of the Past and commented on the atrocious encoding job that came on that disc. This time round we’ve got a two hour film on a BD-25 with a slightly low bit rate of 25.97Mbps. In general this AVC encode is much stronger than the one on Origin, but the transfer still exhibits clear compression issues, with tiny blocking and obvious banding being a particularly frequent presence - mostly this affects the darker scenes and isn’t too distracting. Other elements of the image are more successful, grain is kept to a very light layer that barely makes its presence felt aside from a fuzzy blanket that descends over night time sequences, but this is without doubt a very film-like presentation with low contrast, good shadow detail and fluctuating brightness levels, leading to low black levels which coupled with the slightly high brightness in some scenes can lead to a diffuse look. The contrast may be low but Sori has shot the film with distinctly high exposure so exterior scenes bloom vividly under sunlight. There are forest sequences where the greens of the forest look neon green in the sun and another sequence sees a group of Yakuza draw their swords and those that catch the sun look like light sabres!

Likewise colours and skin tones appear naturalistic and for the most part quite understated, which seems in keeping with the intended look of the film, although as previously mentioned there are sequences where greens in particular are very vivid and the transfer handles these moments nicely. The image is reasonably detailed, it’s not a particularly sharp HD presentation so fine detail is rather muted, but the jump from standard definition is obvious and I’m willing to guess this film didn’t look much different in its theatrical release. There are no obvious signs of noise reduction or artificial sharpening/edge enhancement.

Audio comes in the sole form of a Japanese Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, which like the transfer is rather understated but suitably theatrical in sound. The audio in general is rather delicate, the soundstage is pretty expressive but rears are mostly used for simple environmental sounds, in action sequences the sound field opens up but there’s still little in the way of overt use of surrounds. Bass and treble are pretty solid, in general the bass could be tighter but action sequences have enough oomph and treble is relatively smooth. There are a couple of moments when the quality of the audio and audibility and depth of the dialogue dips a little, but this seems to be down to the recording not this disc. Audio dynamics are pretty solid and Lisa Gerrard’s (of Gladiator fame) music sounds suitably refined. While the presentation of Ichi is pretty good, there is one aspect of the disc that seriously annoys and that’s Manga’s decision to make the player generated English subtitles non-removable; absolute lunacy on their part. The only extra on this disc is a theatrical trailer.

Last updated: 18/04/2018 19:06:47

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