by Jay Seaver
It is one of the oldest tricks in the book, despite having rather limited success, as far as I can tell: Take a franchise that has seen better days and revive it, only the new protagonist is no longer a middle-aged man, but a young, attractive girl. Maybe she's an apprentice, a long-lost (grand)daughter, or just someone who stumbled upon the legacy. The point is, the new product has got the unstoppable combination of brand awareness and sex appeal - how can it fail?And yet, this template has seldom been a roaring success, and it's no different with Ichi, which almost certainly will not see the same sort of success as Zatoichi (26 movies, a TV series, and a Takeshi Kitano remake). Maybe it's the inevitable result of thinking in terms of product and franchise from the start, or that the alchemy of a hit is almost impossible to replicate just by following a recipe. Even franchise reboots that stick close to the source material often fail to catch lightning in a bottle for a second time; taking that further calculated step can just make it more alienating.
"Missing a little something, not just the 'Zato'."
So we have Ichi (Haruka Ayase), a blind goze singer wandering on her own. Despite wearing rags and often sleeping outside, though, she's not completely helpless; far from it, she carries a short sword and her backslashing accuracy with it is lethal. She arrives in the town of Bito with ronin Toma Fujihara (Takao Osawa), allowing the local yakuza to assume that he is the one who killed a handful of bandits, even though he freezes when the time comes to draw his sword. Local yakuza leader Toraji Shirakawa (Yosuke Kubozuka) hires Toma to help them fight the Banki-to gang, named for its monstrous leader, Banki (Shido Nakamura). Ichi's curiosity is piqued when she finds out that Banki once knew a certain blind swordsman.
The samurai film and the western are closely related genres, and Ichi could certainly pass for an oater if it swapped its samurai swords for six-shooters. You've got a gang choking the life out of a town, local authorities (which is what the yakuza effectively were, at this point in time) unable to stop them, and a new sheriff in town who relies heavily on a trusted deputy. When the yakuza and bandits line up at opposite ends of a deserted street, a little Morricone on the soundtrack would sound just about right.
Unfortunately, while the ambiance of those scenes is just right and the action scenes which play out startlingly quickly even in slow motion can be exciting, the rest of the movie frequently doesn't measure up. The story isn't bad, even if it is pretty standard fare. Director Fumihiko Sori never seems to commit to a tone for the movie, though. The movie swings from melodrama to earnest sadness, and while the audience can see the skeleton of a love story, there's not a lot of passion to make it a great one.
The main problem, though, is that the cast is for the most part too young and good-looking. Even after we've seen the rape which saw Ichi banished from her troupe, Haruka Ayase is just too beautiful, with a face too perfectly unlined. It's not wholly her fault, of course - she plays the scenes where she is being put through the wringer well enough; it's just where we're supposed to look at her and know things have happened to her that she falls short. And someone else decided that her rags should look "distressed" rather than "tattered", or that she should always be clean and perfectly made-up and coiffed. The end result, though, is that we look at her and see her beauty rather than her character - she just doesn't give Ichi the proper gravity. Osawa is much the same, only he does a thing where he winces and looks tortured every time he starts to draw his sword. The two banter well enough together, and I might like them in a romantic comedy, but in a samurai movie (or a western), they look like kids in their high school play - dressed up in the costumes, solemnly playing their roles, but just unable to give the characters enough weight.They can handle action, and when that's going on, the movie works well enough to be entertaining. It wants to be something a bit heftier, though, and neither Sori nor his cast has the gravitas to completely pull it off.
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originally posted: 11/10/09 00:10:47