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This time the blind swordsman is actually a swordswoman: Ichi, who is on a quest to find the man who taught her martial arts skills as a young girl. When she is confronted by a gang of bandits, Ichi becomes caught up in ridding the town of the unruly gang while also offering assitance to wandering samurai Toma, a fighter much less gifted than herself.
For more about Ichi and the Ichi Blu-ray release, see Ichi Blu-ray Review published by Dustin Somner on December 31, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Takao Ôsawa, Haruka Ayase
Directors: Hiroshi Kuze, Fumihiko Sori
» See full cast & crew
Ichi Blu-ray Review
“Those who cannot see do not know where the boundaries lie.”
Reviewed by Dustin Somner, December 31, 2009
Before I delve into a review of film I'm here to discuss, it's important that I clear up two potential misconceptions. First, this 2008 Ichi production has no connection whatsoever with Takashi Miike's uber-violent classic, Ichi the Killer. Second, though the title doesn't incorporate the word "Zatoichi", this is a direct extension of the franchise that spawned twenty-six films between 1962 and 1989, with a spin-off television series from 1974 through 1979. Prior to the release of Ichi, the world of "Zatoichi" was revisited by Takeshi Kitano in 2003, who breathed new life into the ongoing saga of the blind swordsman. Clearly moving in a different direction, Ichi replaces the male dominated series with a female lead, to deliver an experience that feels both fresh and familiar at the same time. Longtime "Zatoichi" fans should rest assured this new offering remains true to the timeless formula of the classic film series, while taking advantage of the impressive enhancements offered by modern cinema.
Ichi is a beautiful wandering musician whose lack of sight masks a deadly secret. Hidden within the innocent wooden exterior of her walking cane, lies a blade that becomes an unparalleled instrument of destruction when placed in the capable hands of a master swordsman (or swordswoman in this case). Many men have attempted to take advantage of Ichi, believing she is incapable of protecting herself, but that's typically the last mistake they ever make.
Set during the Edo period, Ichi (Haruka Ayase) crosses paths with an exceptional swordsman named Toma Fujihira (Takao Osawa), who appears at first glance to be a bit of a buffoon. The unlikely pair wander into an inn town where they soon learn of an ongoing feud between the family of the local innkeeper and a band of bullies known as the Banki-to. The innkeeper's son hires Fujihira as a bodyguard following the slaying of several Banki-to men (mistakenly believing he was responsible for their demise), but due to a tragic occurrence in his youth, the master swordsman is unable to draw his blade from its sheath. Drawn together by destiny and a desire to help the local townspeople, Ichi and Fujihira help each other overcome their own personal demons in an attempt to disband the Banki-to and bring peace to the local village.
If you're familiar with "Zatoichi", the plot of the film won't deliver any profound surprises. The trademark blind warrior is tasked with saving a group of innocent villagers from a villain they can't fight off alone. The addition of Fujihira as a sidekick, coupled with the romantic undertones adds a slightly new flavor to the mix, but the most profound difference in the tone of the plot arrives courtesy of the lead female character. Unlike its predecessors, Ichi delivers a tale that feels a bit more somber and far more emotional than I remember. This is largely due to the mistreatment of Ichi at various stages in the story (most men would agree it's difficult to watch violence toward women), since most of the lowlife men she crosses paths with assume she's merely a sexual toy for their taking. Naturally, she dispatches these villains for the wrongdoings done to her, but the differences between a male and female in the role are quite substantial.
Despite the overlying seriousness of the film, there's plenty of comedy thrown in to provide welcomed breaks from the tragic elements. The character of Fujihira is a wonderful contrast to Ichi, since his bubbly personality and tendency to stretch the truth result in awkward moments that had me grinning ear to ear. Likewise, the almost tongue-in-cheek acting from Yosuke Kubozuka (as the innkeeper's son) seems a little out of place on occasion, but stays grounded enough to deliver laughs without completely yanking viewers out of the film. While I'm discussing the acting in the production, I want to briefly commend Haruka Ayase on her excellent performance as Ichi. Her soft-spoken demeanor hides tremendous emotional weight that must be conveyed through her body language. I can only imagine how challenging it must be to pretend you're blind, so the fact that she is so convincing in the role is a true testament to her acting abilities.
Another contrasting element in Ichi that's a bit of a departure from the "Zatoichi" franchise, is the filming of the action choreography. I remember watching the old Zatoichi films where the hero would slay five opponents in 2 seconds, resulting in a uniform collapse of bodies to the ground. The violence was never flashy, but that was a key element of his fighting style (kill everyone before they have the opportunity to react). In Ichi, the same slicing motion is utilized (with the sword held parallel to the arm), but most of the fight sequences are shown in slow motion, as if we're watching Gerard Butler dispatch dozens of Persians in 300. I'm certainly not complaining about the flashy extended shots, or the drawn out duel with the primary villain of the film, but it certainly shows how far we've come with the use of CGI and intricate choreography over the years.
Despite my overall enjoyment of Ichi, there are some flaws worth pointing out. First, I appreciated most aspects of the period setting, but some articles of clothing felt a little out of place. Fujihira's clothes are far too pristine for a wandering swordsman who spends most of his time in the forest, and the same could be said about the Banki-to warriors, who camp out in the dusty foothills. Furthermore, I can't fathom why the art director decided to dress the villain and his men in colorful clothing that incorporates pinks, oranges and yellows. Some of their outfits made me ponder whether there were cross-dressing samurai back in the Edo period, which is not the type of thought you want the audience mulling over during a serious film. To make matters worse, the use of awful wigs on several characters cannot be overlooked, especially when one character is given a style that reminded me of Elvis with a mullet. I know these might be petty complaints to some viewers, but I'd encourage you to approach the film with realistic expectations regarding the production values.
Ichi Blu-ray, Video Quality
Presented in 1080p utilizing the AVC codec (at an average bitrate of 27Mbps), Ichi offers a highly proficient visual experience that rarely falters. Fine object detail is above average, revealing intricacies in tattered fabric, individual strands of hair, and every crevice in the bark of woodland trees. As I mentioned earlier in this review, the costumes and make-up aren't the most convincing, so while it's always appreciated to have a nice crisp picture, there are some negative aspects to a more revealing resolution. Likewise, the use of CGI blood effects appears decent enough, but I'm fairly positive the incorporation of splatter will look a bit more seamless in standard definition. Moving along to the color spectrum, this is a vibrant production, with a nice level of saturation in the various hues. Given the style of the film, I appreciate the lack of a skewed palette through filtering, allowing the beauty of the settings and photography to shine through in a natural manner. Equally impressive is the depth of black levels and contrast, which maintain strong differentiation between the lighter and darker elements in the transfer, lending additional depth to the picture.
All in all, this is a strong presentation that would almost be considered demo-worthy if it weren't for some less than spectacular elements in the production values of the costumes, make-up, and CGI effects.
Ichi Blu-ray, Audio Quality
If you've read several of my prior reviews on theatrical anime releases from Funimation, you already know the story here (I'm trying not to sound like a broken record player). As with prior releases, the original language track (in Japanese) is given a lossless mix, accompanied by a lossless English dub. Switching back and forth between the two tracks, I noticed the same difference in quality and volume found on other discs I've reviewed, with the dubbed English track offering a vast improvement in clarity, spatial separation, and overall balance. If I had to describe the difference, I'd say it most resembles the variations found when you switch between the lossless and lossy offerings on other Blu-ray discs. As I've mentioned before, the bitrate for the English track is almost three times that of the Japanese offering, though the sound engineers at Funimation have provided an explanation for that variation (and the difference in the perceived quality of both tracks). I've included their statement below this review, even though it was written in response to one of my prior reviews.
Getting down to an analysis of the English track, I was pleased with the dynamic delivery of every element in the mix, from the swoosh of a blade cutting through air, to the crude twang of Ichi's 3-stringed instrument. When the action heats up, the surround stage kicks everything up a notch, creating an immersive experience that truly adds to the entertainment value of the film. Dialogue, effects, and the musical score are all well-balanced with appropriate weight in the overall mix, allowing viewers to enjoy the onscreen action without desperately reaching for the volume button. On the other hand, the Japanese offering leaves a lot to be desired (especially when played immediately after the English track). Despite turning the volume up to what I'd consider an optimum level, the sound design still felt lifeless and distant. It's truly a shame we couldn't have equally proficient tracks for viewers that prefer the native language offering over the English dub, but based on Funimation's statement below, it appears this is the best we can expect.
Now for a word from our friends in the audio department at Funimation:
"TrueHD is a truly lossless format that when played back on a supported Blu-ray player or A/V receiver recreates the exact sound as it exists on the master. What was delivered by the original mixing engineer is exactly what is presented by the player. TrueHD has a variable bit-rate however which may lead to speculation on whether it is truly a lossless format. This can be observed in players such as the Playstation 3 which has a bit-rate display that gives a rough estimate of the playback bit-rate. It is a common belief that when the bit-rate of audio or video goes up there is better quality and when it goes down there is lesser quality. This is not true with Dolby TrueHD. The TrueHD encoding process will analyze the incoming audio and apply just enough bits to maintain perfect quality. What this means is that when a simple or less complex part of the soundtrack is playing the bit-rate will be lower because less bits are needed to maintain perfect quality. This could be quiet! Scenes where there may be only dialog or little music and sound effects. This also means that when there are complex parts with lots of action, explosions, and music happening all at once the Dolby TrueHD encoder will raise the bit-rate to make sure perfect quality is maintained. Sometimes an entire mix may have a different bit-rate overall. For example, an English 5.1 surround mix coexists with a Japanese 5.1 mix on the same Blu-ray disc. Because mixing is a creative process the engineer doing the English 5.1 mix may make mixing decisions that require a higher bit-rate during the encode process. If differences occur either in the overall tone or in the bit-rate between the different languages it is simply because they sound slightly different. Both will be true to their original source."
Ichi Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Making of Documentary (480p, Dolby Digital 2.0, 1:15:15 min): We don't often find a behind the scenes supplement this lengthy, so fans should rejoice at the forethought shown in the production of this extra. Broken down scene by scene, we have the opportunity to intimately follow the cast, film crew, choreographers, and various other production members as they prepare for upcoming scenes. In most cases, we're treated to a comparison of the scene through the eyes of a backstage onlooker, and then shown the same take in its final form. Despite running a little long, I found this to be a worthwhile addition, and it definitely added to my enjoyment of the film.
Visual Effects Documentary (480p, Dolby Digital 2.0, 14:41 min): Narrated by Fumihiko Sori (director), this supplement provides an explanation of the blood spray effects and various other digital enhancements incorporated into the film through the use of CGI. Above all, I was quite surprised to watch the collection of scene comparisons presented here, since the use of CGI doesn't appear widespread during the course of the film (with the exception of the blood splatter).
Deleted Scenes (480p, Dolby Digital 2.0, 17:41 min): Introduced by Sori, this collection of deleted/extended scenes are a bit rough, but they provide a greater level of depth or background to the main characters. Given the film's two hour runtime, I don't think these scenes would have added much to the film, but it's always interesting to see the footage that didn't make the final cut.
Press Interview (480p, Dolby Digital 2.0, 31:19 min): As the title implies, this supplement consists of footage with the director and two primary cast-members, as they discuss the film prior to its premiere. Then we're taken to a second and third premiere, for a new round of superficial fanboy questions. The last ten minutes feature a sit-down interview with Sori and Ayase to discuss the themes of the film. Perhaps it's just a lack of patience, but my short attention span had me fidgeting within the first 5 minutes.
Rounding out the extras, we have standard definition trailers for Ichi, and a collection of trailers for other Funimation releases.
Ichi Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
If you're familiar with the "Zatoichi" film series, there's a good chance this will be a worthwhile addition to your collection. The acting is decent, the plot is entertaining, and the production as a whole is fairly competent. However, I wouldn't say there's anything groundbreaking or overly ambitious about the project, leaving me with only a lukewarm impression. I'm sure this will be a film I revisit in the future, but it won't replace Shinobi: Heart Under Blade on my list of Japanese films in this genre. From a technical standpoint, I have little to complain about, since Funimation delivered a solid transfer, and included lossless tracks for both the dubbed and Japanese versions. I wish the special features had been provided in high-definition, but given the wealth of supplements included on the disc, I'm willing to accept what we're given. Taken as a whole, this Blu-ray release falls directly in between a rental recommendation and a reserved endorsement of a purchase. If you love Japanese period filmmaking, you can't go wrong with Ichi, but if you're on the fence regarding your enthusiasm for the genre, give it a rental first.
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