Ichi (2008) - How a minor Samurai classic was lost to a Western audience.
Director: Fumihiko Sori, Distributed by Warner Bros, Certificate 15.
Sitting down to watch Ichi (2008) I knew absolutely nothing about it other than it stared Haruka Ayase who I'd previously enjoyed in Cyborg She, The Incite Mill and a couple of other films.
I suspected, but didn't know, that the title "Ichi" was some sort of allusion to Zatoichi, the great - and long running - series of samurai films staring the incomparable Shintaro Katsu (more recently a version was made by Takeshi Kitano). But was this just being used to create a feeling or reaction of familiarity in the audience? Was it a revisionist feminist reworking? Or, even some sort of sequel? I had no idea. This is how I generally like to watch films - I don't need or want a ton of information beforehand; it might ruin my experience. I'll pay enough attention to reviews before a film just to be sure I'm not going to waste my time on something awful; and then afterward I'll read reviews properly - just to compare opinions.
Ichi can be watched a pretty straight-forward Samurai drama/action film. Many critics did - and some of them showed their ignorance of Japanese cinema, classic American cinema and fairly obvious, yet important, gender politics. There is more going on in this film than some casual observers credited it with; they missed much. What was worse was that a fair few professional film-critics were completely missing many of the themes of the film. We'll get to them later.
The film, clearly has Sergio Leone writ large all over it - it's not just the general conceit but the way scenes, particularly the build-up to action scenes, are filmed. Face-offs between rival factions look like they've been lifted directly from A Fistful of Dollars. This is hardly an accident. It may or may not have been intentional but the fusion between a sub-genre of samurai films and classic westerns (American and Italian) is a long-standing and explicit one that began with Akira Kurosawa and his love of John Ford films.
Ichi, a beautiful blind woman, travels the countryside alone. She lives through the generosity of some and makes a small living performing; singing and playing a lute for groups of men in want of entertainment while they drink into the night. It is slowly revealed that she roams the villages and towns in the hope of finding a man she once knew.
Toma Fujihira, a man claiming to be a master samurai, joins her (to her slight annoyance) on her journey for a while. On the way to the next town they are attacked by bandits and Ichi automatically defends herself and kills both assailants; revealing her stick to be a disguised sword-cane. Toma was not even able to draw his sword and we are left to think that he is a coward and liar. A sum of money taken from him by the bandits before the fight is destroyed in the altercation. He manages to convince her that it was he who actually killed the criminals. He has lost a significant amount of money. Believing him, and believing herself to now be in his debt Ichi devises a plan to regain his loses.
At the next town they go gambling. He sits at the table placing the bets. Dice are placed under a cup, shaken, and bets taken on the outcome of the roll. Ichi, sits behind him and facing away from the table. Using her enhanced hearing she is able to determine how the dice have landed and what number they add up to. She whispers this information to Toma who keeps betting and winning until they reach the amount he previously lost, at which point Ichi withdraws - considering her debt paid. Toma leaves with her.
This, and many other scenes, resonate with its native audience in ways it doesn't with those who haven't seen the previous Zatoichi films. Imagine a Bond film. The use of certain clothing, cars, the way certain scenes always play out. The same things are constantly being riffed on there, and in genre films generally, and similar things are at play here. This particular scene is a specific homage to one of the original Zatoichi films - one where he's gambling himself; the hidden-clattering of the dice tell him exactly how to bet. He wins over and over again, finally leading to some furious reactions. It's a famous scene and a typical Japanese audience would have been well-aware of it. Zatoichi films also almost always follow the same group of moral codes - "betting within your means" (only risk what you can afford to lose) was always one of them. The men furious at their loses shouldn't be betting money they cannot afford to be without - they should play within their means and see it as a game.
It's a neat scene, drawing parallels with the earlier films - adding some depth, and also being a nod to the earlier films. It's one of many. It also helps build the impression in the other characters that this man, Toma, is a hard-drinking, hard-playing, clinical killer of a man. The blind-woman who always seems to be around when things happen; invisible to them.
A number of men, members of the Bankito gang, who had been drinking and have just lost money want it back. They attack outside and once again Ichi defends herself; an exacting - and economical - whirlwind of death. Toma has, again, failed to use his sword - a paralyzed and scared mess. At this point the acting-leader of the Town (his elderly father barely able to walk) appears and assumes Toma to have killed the gang members. He decides to employ Toma in helping to repell the frequent attacks on the town by Banki, the gang leader. Again, it's the woman who is actually the one with the, this time - lethal, abilities but is - again - underestimated by those around her.
Ichi wants to leave and resume her travels. She divulges that the person she seeks is a blind man; she is told an upcoming celebration is likely to feature a blind master-swordsman - perhaps the man she seeks. She decides to stay and wait in the hope that this is who she has been tracking for all this time - and it's here that it becomes clear that this man she is trying to find is, most likely, the famous Zatoichi.
The action scenes are superb and as good as the very best to be found in any of the Zatoicchi films.
"The fight scenes directed by Kurosawa's choreographer Hiroshi Kuze are exceptional, actually enhancing the pathos at the heart of the film. This might be a simple story, but it's well-told and has an unassuming appeal". - Jonathan Williams, Little White Lies
I'd disagree with the "This might be a simple story" part. The basic drive of the film is a simple one but the many, various, layers of subtext make it a film that's more complex than it might initially seem. He's right about the fight scenes though.
To discuss Ichi and it's plot much further would be to ruin it for an audience yet to see it. Why does she seek Zatoichi? Why can't Toma draw his sword, and who is he? There's some tragedy, some hope, some lessons learned. Just like the Zatoichi films of old.
A review of Ichi that I read not so long ago on a popular website but, interestingly, can no longer find (pulled by an editor?), said that the film was simplistic and boring. It's anything but. A "critic" with no knowledge of the history and themes behind the film might come to this conclusion, but if you're aware of what this film references and you have a decent knowledge of the history of film (and not just a narrow understanding of modern Western cinema) you can see this isn't the case - and that it is working on a number of levels; some very subtle. You don't go from only ever reading Dr Seuss books to then suddenly attempting to read War and Peace - you have to educate yourself in order to get to a place where you can appreciate what you're reading.
This, now unknown (if I can dig it up I'll certainly update this article with an attributed quote) critic, wasn't the only one to not understand what they were watching.
Sometimes you just have to laugh. Derek Malcolm - an actual film reviewer who gets paid (sometimes by The Guardian - ridiculous) to do the job said this -
"Fumihiko Sori's attempt to make an original addition to the Zatoichi martial arts franchise never reaches the virtuosity of Takeshi Kitano's original. Needless to say, the fight scenes are better than the dialogue." - Derek Malcolm July 10, 2009 - This is London.
"Fumihiko Sori's attempt...never reaches the virtuosity of Takeshi Kitano's original." He thinks Kitano's film is an "original" and that this is a sequel to it.
He's been doing the job years. His ignorance of one of the longest-running and acclaimed film-series in cinema makes him a joke, and a bad one. This "critic" - for some reason held in some regard - is proof that if you stick around long enough people assume you're an expert in something. In his "Top 100 films ever made" list, published in 2001, he included Kurasawa's Throne of Blood, but his experience of Asian cinema must be very limited if he has no idea who Zatoichi is. This is also the man who described "The Empire Strikes Back" as "a bit boring". We don't see eye to eye particularly often.
The first Zatoichi film "The Tale of Zatoichi" (1962) all the way to the last of the original series, in 1989 (26 films in total, not to mention the TV series), all starred the legendary Shintarô Katsu. The actor in this film, Ichi, though glimpsed only a few times has clearly been cast due to resemblance to Katsu. It doesn't have a damn thing to do with Kitano and his re-make.
And when it comes to foreign films audiences rely more on reviews and professional critics - they feel like they need more guidance than usual, maybe.
Some of the Zatoichi films are indisputable classics - some of the later ones are overly influenced by whatever cultural trends were popular at the time; but do yourself a favour and watch one or two of the earlier entries. And then watch this, and enjoy it for what it is - an intelligent, well-written, superbly made film that references the classics while being a damn good film in its' own right.