Not to be confused with Takashi Miike’s deranged killer movie, Fumihiko Sori’s (Ping Pong) Ichi is based on the hugely popular TV and movie saga Zatoichi, only this time we're following a young girl and her shamisen. Together they roam small towns and villages in search of her mysterious teacher, a man we glimpse in flashbacks. She believes that he might be her father; we get the feeling he might be the legendary Zatoichi himself.
Ichi’s journey is interrupted when three thugs - the Banki-to - make her an offer she 'can' refuse. A wandering samurai intervenes (he just kind of gets in the way), but fortunately for him, Ichi is a sword fighting legend-in-waiting. She makes short work of her foes and the bumbling samurai joins her on her quest. A motherless child caught up in the bedlam tags along too. And then there were three. What follows is an entertaining passage through over familiar terrain, made less tiresome by quality direction and outrageous support.
Sori is happy to walk in the shadows of his predecessors, despite the intriguing twist at the heart of the movie. Ichi is slow paced, thoughtful and beautifully shot, putting character development ahead of regular bouts of glamorised violence. There's more than enough bloodshed to be found, but Ichi spends just as much time battling her inner demons as she does the outer ones. Haruka Ayase (Cyborg She) is Ichi, a beautiful but damaged heroine struggling to find meaning in life. Her tragic upbringing is established as the movie progresses. Ayase's performance is subdued, or at least the character she plays is, but her heartfelt portrayal is occasionally lost beneath a wave of eccentric villainy.
Leading the bad guys to the sharp end of Ichi’s blade is Banki (Shidou Nakamura), a disfigured gangster with greed matched only by his inability to act like a regular human being. Over the top fun it might be, but his performance doesn’t always sit with the thoughtful, sombre approach adopted by Ayase. The same can be said for her wandering samurai assistant. His performance is light and bouncy but somewhat out of place. He comes on like an overgrown teenager rather than the highly trained swordsman you might be expecting.
Ichi's past is fleshed out in welcome flashbacks and the action scenes are staged well enough - short, sharp and precise, much like our protagonists thrusting blade. The use of slow motion works really well too (so often the curse of modern action cinema). Sori holds back with notable restraint, using the effect sparingly and all the more effectively as a result.
Ichi doesn’t exactly break new ground, and despite the gender-switch at the heart of the movie, this latest update feels about as familiar as your favourite football shirt. It’s solid, unspectacular stuff for sure, but there are enough positives to warrant a look. Kitano Takeshi's 2003 effort is a superior movie, and an entirely different beast to boot, but Ichi still deserves your time. You'll have to forgive the obvious pun here, but Sori is an up and coming director worth keeping an eye on. AW