Ichi (2008)
Directed by Fumihiko Sori

Haruka Ayase (Ichi), Shido Nakamura (Banki), Takao Ohsawa (Toma Fujihira), Yosuke Kubozuka (Toraji Shirakawa), Megumi Yokoyama (Toma's mother), Ryosuke Shima (Kotaro), Hiroki Matsukata, Tetta Sugimoto (Ichi the First)

Shochiku, 120 minutes
Color, 1.85:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray:
FUNimation Entertainment

Ichi is by far my favorite of the postmodern Zatoichi revivals, not least because its lead character does not presume to usurp the iconic Shintaro Katsu role. Never mind the stupid "Zatoichi gets a sex change" crap some reviewers have snarked apparently without having seen the movie -- it's not about a Zatoichi as a woman, it's about Zatoichi's daughter. Director Fumihiko Sori has found a clever way to respect and build upon the Zatoichi mythos instead of revising and replacing it.

This female Ichi's father was presumably the original dude, portrayed in brief flashbacks by a more handsome Katsu stand-in. She inherited his blindness as well as his name, and he left her to be raised in a house of goze, a order of blind female shamisen players. Whereas the main profession for blind men in old Japan was masseur, blind women generally became goze. While she learned her trade, Ichi's father visited periodically to train her in his quick-draw, reverse-grip sword technique. Ichi puts these skills to use when she is raped and kills her attacker. Since the goze guild requires its members to remain chaste without even allowances for rape, Ichi is cast out to wander alone with no emotional drive in life except to seek her missing father.

This movie wisely doesn't attempt to be a Zatoichi movie, and this Ichi is much more withdrawn and subdued in personality than her bombastic daddy. She doesn't do a lot of amazing superhuman feats except when she's forced to draw her sword in self-defense. And then she is amazing indeed, with the lovely actress Haruka Ayase performing her own stunts in a convincing approximation of the classic Ichi fighting style. Besides the swordplay, there are enough other parallels to examine that I can run through the old checklist...

Mystery Ronin: There's no mystery ronin in the sense of a rival for this Ichi, but a swordsman named Toma Fujihira serves as a sort of parody of that Zatoichi trope. The Shirakawa clan of innkeepers hires Toma as protection against the vicious Banki yakuza gang. The problem is, Toma has never killed anyone. He is a well-trained kendo instructor's son and capable with a bamboo sword, but a childhood trauma has left him incapable of drawing a steel blade. Toma meets Ichi on the road when Banki thugs are threatening her and watches as she kills them herself. Later the Shirakawa boss finds Toma and Ichi standing beside a pile of fresh Banki corpses, and he assumes that Toma must have done the skillful slaying. Neither Toma nor Ichi corrects the misconception, though Toma know he waon't be able to deliver the services he's being paid handsomely for. Ichi at first dismisses Toma as a fool, but the two end up teaching each other about courage and will.

Dice Game: A blind woman attempting to bet at a gambling den in this world would be laughed at or thrown out, and this Ichi is too reserved to bluster her way against that sort of social resistance. But we manage to get the requisite dice scene anyway, as Ichi sits away from the dice table and whispers betting advice to Toma, using her hearing to read the dice. Since she caused him to lose 10 ryo earlier, she feeds him tips until he's won exactly that sum, then ditches him.

Ichi Loves Kids: When Toma asks Ichi if she likes kids, she bluntly says no. But she admits that children generally aren't corrupt like adults are. Ichi forms a bond with a village boy named Kotaro that shows she does take after her dear old dad despite what she claims.

Musical Interludes: As a trained goze, Ichi gets the opportunity to take out her shamisen and sing a couple of songs. She performs at a banquet the Shirakawa clan holds in honor of Toma after they've just hired him. Somehow Ichi has changed out of her ratty clothes into a lavish kimono, with no indication of who would have taken the expense to do her hair and makeup, which makes this scene as unrealistic as the blind swordfighting. But you gotta just go with it.

Ichi is a well-crafted movie, beautifully filmed and full of entertaining action. The script isn't exactly brilliant and piles on the sentiment a bit thick in places, but I have a soft spot for female swordfighter chambara. This one can stand beside the classics like Lady Snowblood and Junko Miyazono's Poisonous Seductress series, and I accept it as genuine Zatoichi canon. Haruka Ayase is compelling and instantly likable in a low-key role where many actresses might have come across as wooden. And I wish the remake-obsessed movie industry would take note of Ichi as a model of how to add something new to an old franchise instead of just recycling it. I can only think of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek as a comparable example of acknowledging and honoring the original classic while creating a fresh new chapter.

The Jidai-Geki Knights