The Zatoichi series ran 26 movies (1962-1982) and a television series ran for five years (1974-1979). Twenty years later, Takeshi "Beat" Kitano reinvented Zatoichi with his version of the character. This was easily one of my favorite movie at the time, I saw it at the independent theater twice in 2003 and ordered a region 3 release of the DVD as soon as it was available on import. Incidentally, to show support for the US market, I also bought the US edition of the DVD, which came with a bonus Sonatine movie (which was originally released in the states by Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder productions).
Considering the movie did quite well, critically and (I'm assuming) in sales, I was hoping for a follow-up movie by Kitano, but unfortunately there's no such plan. However, interestingly enough, one of my all-time favorite Japanese director, Takashi Miike* directed a stage adaption of Zatoichi for live performances in 2007.
I'm happy to report that, I saw a very good re-imagined of the familiar character, reinvented as a female protagonist, called Ichi. I wish the producers had kept the brand of "Zatoichi", as people who hear "Ichi" does not always associate the name with the blind swordsman. To be fair, Ichi is the original character's name. The term "zato" means low-ranking blind person (low-ranking in the Todoza guild). Logically, they could've named this movie Gozeichi, because Goze refers to blind musician women of that time period.
Anyway, beside my gripe about the Ichi name as the movie title, I also didn't like the idea that a model (Ayase Haruka) is playing the part of the protagonist. All that was really not worth worrying, because the whole movie is quite entertaining and enjoyable, and there is only once where Haruka is seen 'dolled up' for a music performance (most of the movie, she's covered from head to toe in dirty rags). However, there are at times when the director Fumihiko Sori choose to stay too long on Haruka's beautiful unblemished face. We get it, she's cute.
The story is uncomplicated, Ichi wanders into some town with an inept sword-drawing samurai Toma (the name is close to a slang "tonma" for idiot or fool). The town is in trouble from the Banki gang, and in Zatoichi fashion, Ichi and Toma saves the town. During the course of the film, there are the tried-and-true Zatoichi moments like slashing out the lights and Ichi triumph in complete darkness, the use of sound to throw Ichi off, and, of course, the Cho-Han Bakuchi dice gambling.
What made the film interesting, at least to me, is that the soundtrack is by Dead Can Dance's Lisa Gerrard! So throughout the movie, you do hear that ethereal vocals, similar to her efforts on Ridley Scott's Gladiator. I suspect she only wrote the vocals, the credit I have for composer is Michael Edwards, who previously worked with Gerrad on her solo material. The soundtrack was a bit of a surprise to me, generally these J-movies' music and production team are usually kept inhouse. Although, having said that, the one outro credit song is by Korean J-Pop singer SunMin.
Ichi the movie will be made available in the US market via Bluray and DVD in two days (December 22nd), just in time for last-minute xmas shoppers. Hopefully those Best Buy tonmas will be smart and order some copies for their store (however, if it costs over $25, I'd rather order it online, or not own it at all - hey times are tough!).
* I love all three billion of his movies! Audition, City of Lost Souls, One Missed Call, Ichi the Killer, Fudoh, The Happiness of the Katakuris, Zebraman, Sukiyaki Western: Django, etc.