Gone are the days of the yore, when any and all good chanbara films were plastered across the screen in glorious anamorphic widescreen. Partially due to the rise of V-cinema, made to fit 4:3 TV screens in its infancy, and now 16:9 screens in our current high definition age, and partially due to the development and acceptance of digital cinema with its standardized 16:9 image, fewer and fewer chanbara films, or even jidaigeki in general, opt to shoot in the once popular 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Our eyes are no longer filled with the classically composed samurai images established by Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Gosha and Kihachi Okamoto. Not to say this is a bad thing. The wider aspect ratio definitely presents the films in a more grandiose, epic manner, which would not have been conductive to Yoji Yamada’s trilogy of smaller samurai tales that are the antithesis of the bigger films of old. But some films scream to be presented in that colossal cinematic manner.
"Ichi", directed by the incredibly diverse Sori Fumihiko, is one of those films. With each passing second, I couldn’t but wish there was more image at either end of the frame. Haruka Ayase plays Ichi, a goze (a blind women, usually working as a musician), who travels the countryside with her shamisen (a three stringed instrument) looking for a blind swordsman. Of course, when push comes to shove, this blind songstress whips out some bad as moves and cuts people to ribbons, with the same back handed style that Zatoichi once used. While staying with another goze who also happens to double as a prostitute, a group of ruffians who refuse to pay for their services end up being confronted by Toma Fujihira (played by Takao Osawa), a samurai who is so scarred by a childhood experience that he’s unable to draw his sword. So Ichi obviously comes to his rescue, dispatching the morally corrupt men. However, the local villagers come to think that Toma, the cowardly samurai, was the one who killed the group of bandits, and the local gang boss promptly hires him. You see the men he (or Ichi) killed were part of a large group of bandits led by a horrifically scarred man named Banki (played incredibly over the top by Shido Nakamura). They are causing trouble for the town gang, and they need help! Of course, Toma is not skilled enough to actually deal with the bandits (is he?), so Ichi comes to his assistance, especially when informed that the blind swordsman she seeks may in fact be coming to town.
"Ichi" has more in common with Kitano’s Ichi rendition than the classic series, but trades the laughs of all previous incarnations for what is mostly a somber tone. Gone are the days of a blind swordsman who wanders the countryside with a penchant for gambling and through fate alone winds up becoming embroiled in some crazy adventures. This is Ichi on a mission. Yes, there are some comedic moments, but they don’t really fit with the tone of the rest of the film, and they frankly aren’t that funny. Kitano’s treatment makes you laugh out loud. This doesn’t even break a smile. And it’s this brooding sense of revenge that almost crushes the film under its own weight. Haruka Ayase is good as Ichi, but it’s hard to know how good because she really only has one tone and one expression the entire film. She plays a convincing depressed blind swordswoman, but I was really hoping she’d snap out of her funk. Ultimately, all its faults fall upon the script. Cinematically the film looks great, and Sori Fumihiko’s intercutting of slow motion during the fight scenes is incredibly well done. This is a man who knows how to put together a film. Unfortunately you can put together something that’s missing pieces.
It’s a film that much like Ichi, seems lost. It wants to evoke the same sort of beauty you’d find from the Yamada samurai films, keeping the tale small and personal, but the script is too shallow. Its musical score by Lisa Gerrard of "Gladiator" fame sounds like it was done by the person who did the music for "Gladiator". It doesn’t work at all. However it also doesn’t cater to the blood thirsty hordes of genre fans that want to see a sexy Japanese women wielding swords and massacring men on masse, leaving a wake of blood and gore. Fumihiko forces the film to take its time, to allow things to play out on screen, and he keeps the on screen violence to a minimum. All good points. Plus the excellent Shintaro Katsu impersonator, and the always entertaining Riki Takeuichi is doesn’t hurt the film any. But then you’ve got unbelievable character motivations, and the big moments of revelation that break the characters out of their shells are really contrived and trite.
As part of the Zatoichi mythology, "Ichi" is a nice little touch, and I really hope they continue with more. The inclusion of a blind swordswoman that isn’t catering to genre fan boys around the world is a much-needed thing, but they really need to work things out with the script first, because some of it just didn’t work.