Zatoichi is a Japanese cinematic legend, of sorts, the blind swordsman/masseusse who travels the countryside, finding himself in the middle of conflict after conflict. While only one of the official flicks featuring the lethal wanderer has hit Blu-ray, a new iteration of the classic hero has arrived to satiate fans.
'Ichi' may not be 'Zatoichi,' or even 'Ichi the Killer,' but in some instances, that may be a good thing (though, to be honest, a Takashi Miike film adaptation of the story would be heaven, considering he has already wandered into the territory with a stage play). An obvious nod/homage to the Zatoichi films of the past, 'Ichi' is a nice twist on the story, and a worthy entry in the saga.
The blind swordswoman, Ichi (Haruka Ayase), is searching for a man from her past as she travels the countryside, playing her shamisen. Unlike her predecessor, her reputation doesn't precede her, as horny would-be rapists and overly confident ronin underestimate her (partially due to her shabby attire and soft looks), until they feel the sting backhanded slash of the katana hidden in her walking stick. In her quest, she runs across Toma (Takao Osawa), a young samurai with a shameful past, who takes credit for her kills.
Toma and Ichi get in the middle of a clan war between the tranquil and reserved Shirakawa and the wild and rebellious Banki-to, led by the murderous and vile Banki (Shido Nakamura), a warrior with a deformed face. The shamed will seek to bring back honor. The wronged will seek vengeance, more power, and the life of Ichi.
'Ichi' brings the legendary Zatoichi on screen for a few brief moments while explaining the connection between the characters, from their infliction to their similar methods. Considered more a "reimagining" than a remake (think 'Casino Royale,' in effect, only with a different gender), 'Ichi' is very reminiscent of 'The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi,' with strikingly similar cityscapes and a few sequences that seem directly lifted.
Toma Fujihira is an interesting character, perhaps more so than the titular heroine. He's naive, a poor gambler and opportunist, a liar and crook, taking advantage of a case of mistaken identity. However, Toma (who could also be called Mittens due to his funky garb and childish outlook through most of the film) is the only character who shows growth, as a person and as a warrior, as his backstory is the most sensical and clear, his motivations known, his restraints and fears understood. Despite his early "misdeeds," if you would, he is a true hero, despite (or even because of) his inability to draw his blade due to a childhood mishap.
The world of 'Ichi' is a bizarre one, as I couldn't help but notice how every main character has a critical flaw of some sort. Ichi (and Zatoichi) are sightless, while Toma is too restrained and fear riddled, his mother blinded (yes, like 'Ichi,' perhaps even furthering his connection to her) by his blade. Banki wears a mask to cover his deformity/scarring (though, honestly, his garb is more hideous than his visage), while Toraji Shirakawa (Yosuke Kubozuka), the son of the Shirakawa elder, ends up with a broken arm. This vehicle may be a bit exaggerated and obvious, but shows the flaws of each vital character and how they either overcome or become their shortcomings.
The two hour runtime flies by after the first half hour, with an exquisite pace. However, there are times when watching 'Ichi' can feel like a slog, as Nakamura is painful in his overacting (especially later on), and the lack of true originality can be telling. In my eyes, "Beat" Tikano's re-imagining is superior (vastly so, if you take out the dance sequence) to Fumihiko Sori's ('Vexille') 'Ichi.' What is presented here is more serious and realistic, with a very similar fighting technique (no long drawn out duals, just quick slashing) to "Beat's" take. Hardcore Zatoichi fans will debate which film is superior, but each can make its case.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Ichi' arrives on Blu-ray from FUNimation on a BD50 disc in a standard case, with an attractive mirrored slipcover. A word to the wise: do not attempt to peal stickers off the slip, as, just like 'Inglourious Basterds,' the stickers will remove some of the printing. The pre-menu trailers on the disc are skippable through the top menu button. 'Ichi' is reportedly Region A locked.
'Ichi' is presented with a 1080p AVC MPEG-4 encode in the natural ratio that certainly has its ups and downs. The opening shot has to be the best looking in the entire film, with amazingly clear and distinct snowflakes, and the cleanest of clean whites. As the film progresses, whites become a bit busier.
Colors are strong, though not sensationalized, while skin tones are accurate more often than not, with only the occasional orange. Color banding pops up from time to time in the background, but other artifacting isn't an issue. Grain levels don't stay solid, as dark shots have a pronounced spike.
Delineation is poor, as dark shots absorb all detail, while blacks are too bright, to boot. Clothing definition is solid and commendable, though facial features are often dull. Detail is strong enough that skull caps (to simulate the shaved tops of heads) stand out, which is a compliment to the transfer, though an insult to the makeup work. There's a hint of ringing to be found from time to time, as well.
Any review of 'Ichi' that doesn't mention the CG is missing a vital element of the visual presentation that is a huge distraction (though, like the makeup effects, are not the fault of the transfer, but the source). CG blood, while a nice deep crimson, is beyond unnatural, making even the worst of shooter game arterial sprays look genuine. At times it appears a child has scribbled and dabbled on screen with a red crayon! The blood splashes stand out from the film, hovering, as characters pass through them, and the camera lightly shakes, making them stand out even further. Slashes occasionally disappear in a few frames before reappearing. I'm not much a fan of the CG blood craze, as I find it distracting, and in 'Ichi,' it certainly drives the eye away from the rest of the film.
While FUNimation's anime releases have had some questionable choices when it comes to audio, every facet of 'Ichi''s audio is spot on, from the dual lossless tracks (in Japanese and English), both receiving the 5.1 treatment, with the default on the disc being the original language. Color me pleased, both with the proper handling of the audio, and how well the Dolby TrueHD track sounds.
The opening sequence of the film may be the best sounding, with harsh cold winds whistling through every channel with the utmost in realism (and reviewing this disc in the dead of winter, man was it effective!). As the film progresses, surround use is appropriate, never overblown. Crowded sequences all provide nice atmosphere, with sound readjusting in location as camera angles change. Localization effects aren't too prevalent, but they get the job done, while movement is light, but accurate. Dialogue is clear, through score and action, while even whispers are audible (though, to be fair, they're almost too faint to discern). Dynamics are solid, with a nice high range that shows up from time to time, while bass use is reserved for a few moments of atmosphere and effect. 'Ichi' gets the job done, and does it nicely.
'Ichi' is a solid release, far from blasphemy, despite some slight re-imaginings. A solid mix of beauty and deadliness, the titular character makes for a fascinating watch. The Blu-ray release provides quite nice video and audio, with a hefty pile of extras to boot. This one is worth a look, a must buy for fans of the series, but probably a curiosity for newcomers.