I know It’s been some time since this one came out, and naturally being the swordplay junkie I am, Neko watched it right away when I was lucky enough to grab the subtitled Malay release….
Recently though, the Region 1 Funimation release came along and, as expected, had an English dubbed audio track on board for the US audience that dreads foreign language films or subtitles. Since Carolyn hadn’t watched this one yet…. and because I wanted to surprise her with one of my goofy swordplay films…. “Gasp!! ….In English!!” , it wasn’t hard to talk myself into picking up a copy of it for us to share one evening. On the plus side… it gives your Favorite Catgirl Movie Reviewer the chance to do a comparison of both DVD’s all in one simple lil’ review.
Synopsis? Well it goes like this: “Blind and beautiful traveling entertainer Ichi (played by Ayase Haruka) has been wandering the country searching for her teacher, a blind masseur who taught her the way of the sword when she was a child. She reluctantly gains a traveling companion when kind-hearted samurai Toma (played by Osawa Takao) tries to save her from a group of thugs, and ends up needing to being saved himself.
After Ichi dispels the thugs with a flash of the lethal sword hidden in her walking stick, the two enter a village being terrorized by a gang led by the ruthless Banki (played by Nakamura Shido). Though Ichi isn’t interested in fighting, she soon gets pulled into the lethal battle between good and evil.”
I’ve always loved strong female roles in period swordplay films…. just that fierce il’ warrior spirit within me struggling to escape so naturally this one was a “must see”. How well did Funimation, known mostly as a releaser of anime here in the US, treat this one? Hopefully with the respect such an iconic character deserves…. But enough of this… there’s really only one way to find out, so let’s get to it, shall we? “Read On”!!
So we start out with a tattered and obviously worn Ichi struggling to find shelter one miserably cold winter’s evening. She’s turned away time and again, only to finally find grudging shelter in the barn of a small farm. Before she can even recover her strength, the owner sneaks in to try to put the moves on what he figures is nothing more than a beggar woman who’ll sell herself easily for the asking. Big mistake…. Ichi is blind all right, but more than capable of defending herself as the stupid fool soon learns to his dismay. As Ichi says by way of warning…. “I’m blind…. so I don’t always know what I cut….” Truer words could not be said.
If you’ve watched the old movie series from the 1960s through the 80s featuring Shintaro Katsu as the legendary Zatoichi then you’ll feel very comfortable as this one unfolds. Much as in that series, our heroine is portrayed as the eternal outsider forced by prejudice and circumstance to wander the lonely roads of feudal Japan eking out a living while constantly being forced into deadly confrontations not of her own making. The story builds slowly…. punctuated by scenes of lethal combat that always seem to build to a climax wherein our blind heroine has to kill a veritable horde of thugs to bring peace to people that always seem grateful, yet somehow who remain elusively distant forcing her to take up her wandering life yet again.
Whereas Shintaro Katsu’s Ichi was shown to make his living as a masseuse, for the series to have a female protagonist a different profession was needed. So, Haruka Ayase’s Ichi is instead made a goze (瞽女), blind women, often orphans, who make a living as traveling entertainers and musicians for hire. They function as a support group for those women who would otherwise have no clan or family to aid them….. unfortunately they are also regarded by most people it seems, as wandering vagabonds and a front for prostitution. To avoid this stigma, the group has one rule. No member of their troupe is allowed to engage in sexual relations so as to not sully the reputation of the group. Annoyingly…. forcible rape by a customer is seen as no excuse if it happens to one of them. Such is poor Ichi’s fate, and she is expelled to wander alone and friendless because of such an affront.
But that isn’t Ichi’s only reason to wander…. she’s seeking the blind gambler who might be her father (and whom we come to believe might just be Zatoichi himself) that taught her the deadly sword skills she now possesses and whom left her with the Goze when it became evident that he had to travel his own road alone without risking her life in the face of old enemies that hunted for him constantly. You expect this to be the film’s conclusion…. but it wouldn’t be a swordplay melodrama if everything ended happily, so don’t expect that here either.
There’s a love story of course…. the old Zatoichi stories were full of them, doomed thought they always were. On the road she encounters ronin swordsman Toma Fujihira (played by Takao Osawa) a seemingly cowardly warrior unable even to draw his sword to save her or himself from a bunch of thugs. Naturally Ichi is more than able to kill their assailants with her lethal swordcane, a mistake that ends up giving Toma a reputation as a skilled duelist, thus drawing him into a vendetta in the nearby town. No matter how she struggles to keep her distance from the conflict, she keeps getting pulled in, eventually learning the tragic reason behind Toma’s failure as a swordsman. Seems Toma is actually quite an expert with the blade…. but a terrible accident as a child in which he blinded his mother now means he finds himself unable to draw a sword against another human being. They circle each other like wary opponents… each afraid of becoming entangled with another person and bringing their own problems to someone they love.
So how does it end? Well…. Neko wouldn’t want to spoil it for you, but remember, most Japanese stories like this tend to end tragically and leave one feeling somewhat sad. I’ll just remark that the window has been left open for Haruka Ayase to continue in this role…. something that would be welcome indeed if this movie is any example of what can be done with such an old character in a new way.
Overall, both Carolyn and I liked this one. It’s not the constant bloodbath that some swordplay films can be, but at the same time the violence does reach the levels needed. Rather it’s nice to see the type of old melodrama I remember from the Shintaro Katsu series return…. even if this one wasn’t the instant classic that those old films were. Neko gives “Ichi” 4 well deserved “Meows” out of 5 with several purrs of contentment for the overall effect that was achieved in it.
The DVD’s? The Malay one, released by Ikano Fielm, features an excellent Anamorphic Widescreen image in Region 0 NTSC format (presumably directly from the Japanese Region 2 release). It comes with both a Japanese Dolby 5.1 as well as a Dolby stereo audio track. It’s subtitled into both Chinese as well as excellent English. It appears to be uncut, uncensored and complete. Not bad…. and certainly worth the roughly 6-10$ price-tag you’ll find it listed for most places. Just be wary…. there are more than a few shoddy bootlegs of this floating around with far less stellar features.
Funimation’s Region 1 release is also Anamorphic Widescreen in NTSC (of course) and features the Japanese Dolby 5.1 audio track as well as an excellently done English audio dub (One of the advantages of having their experience with anime is having a great stable of voice actors available who are more than up for the job…). They also have English subs if you should like. It also seems to be complete, unaltered and unedited from the original release…. thank goodness. At around 13-20$ US it’s certainly a welcome choice for those looking for a nice edition for their collection.
Well then… my need for swordplay drama fulfilled at last, I look next for that elusive Asian horror film that will have my sweet Carolyn actually looking forward to “movie nite” together….. So, till next time gentle visitors, “Meow, meow for now!”
Oh!…..Yes, there’s a Trailer of course, and here it goes!