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“Ichi the not-quite so much a killer as we hoped.”

This unofficial spin-off from the Zatoichi series had us wondering if there’s a Japanese studio version of The Asylum out there – the people who specialize in knockoffs of popular films, including such classics as Snakes on a Train and Sunday School Musical. We’ll cut the makers of this some slack, since we’re of the opinion that all action films are improved with a heroine in the lead. That’s the main switch here: Zatoichi becomes Ichi (Ayase), a blind swordswoman and entertainer, who is roaming the country in search of the man she believes is her father. She is quite capable of taking care of herself, but the resulting trail of bodies is blamed on travelling companion Tomo Fujihira (Ôsawa), who becomes bodyguard to a town under assault from a gang, led by Banki (Nakamura). Unfortunately, since he accidentally blinded his mother, Tomo is unable to pull his sword from its scabbard, and the Banki gang are ready to wreak revenge on him for the members killed by Ichi.

The main problem is that Tomo is the focus of the film more than Ichi. This is somewhat understandable, since Ichi takes “stoic silence” to much the same level as the corpses she leaves behind. We get some fragmentary glimpses of her past, and what makes her the way she is, but as far as her current personality goes, she’s never going to be accused of talking too much. Or at all. Making matters worse, during much of the climactic final battle between the Bankis and the townsfolk, Ichi is nowhere to be found. We’d been hoping for something like the climax of Azumi, with her slicing and dicing her way through a host of bad guys. Ichi had showed a nice economy of effort early on, maintaining a close to 1:1 ratio of slashes to kills (and never having as much as a hair out of place), but it turns out Banki has dealt with her style before, hampering its effectiveness.

On the plus side, it’s very-nicely shot, and as sidekicks go, Tomo is an amiable character, sliding from comic interest to love interest to tortured-hero interest with ease. This is as much a case of managing expectations as anything. It’s a solid samurai drama, and if it had been called Tomo, we would likely have been less disappointed in the way the film concentrates on him. Admittedly, if that had been the case, we probably wouldn’t have bothered getting a copy…

Dir: Fumihiko Sori
Star: Takao Ôsawa, Haruka Ayase, Shido Nakamura, Yosuke Kubozuka

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