I guess you can refer to “Ichi” as part of the official Zatoichi canon since the story of Ichi is one the reflects the effect Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman had on the people of Japan during his travels. Though not a remake or a reboot of the Zatoichi series, “Ichi” is an unofficial spin off that takes from the film series and creates its own branch off of an epic story about a beautiful young Goze who is taking a journey to find her savior before finally lying down to die. Haruka Ayase is incredibly beautiful and fierce as the Goze Ichi who spends most of her life wandering around from village to village trying to survive one more day while on a search for something in her life that’s kept her motivated to fight ever since she was a child.
After being confronted one day by a gang of samurai, Ichi makes quick work of their violent streak and befriends a brave but hesitant samurai named Toma who befriends Ichi and follow her in to the next village where the two attempt to garner enough money for their travels. When confronted by angry samurai demanding their money back Ichi defends Toma and Toma is mistaken for a bodyguard, asked to defend the local inn town from the Banki-to gang. Accepting their rewards and respect, Toma realizes Ichi is seeking nothing but privacy and reaches out to her emotionally. Much of “Ichi” involves a deep meditation on the life and demons being inflicted on the gorgeous Ichi who is graced with a permanent scowl throughout the film and finds little joy out of life, even with Toma and her young assistant Kotaro anxiously trying to help her find a purpose and spark in life.
Ichi’s own journey revolves around finding the only good person in her life, Zatoichi, who helped train the blind girl as a child in the ways of the sword so she can seek closure. But Toma senses her urge to die and challenges her to find a reason to live. The relationship between Toma and Ichi is sweet and subtle with their views on life clashing quite often as Toma seeks to bring Ichi a new optimism about her life while Ichi simply seeks the rest of death before finally finding Zatoichi. Ayase is angelic in the role of the fractured heroine who seeks only to be left alone and sadly always finds herself walking head first in to unstoppable carnage and bloodshed.
You can sense her pain every time she draws her sword and Ayase adds an effective twitch of sadness whenever she manages to murder someone in cold blood. Ayase gladly never lets her beauty get in the way of portraying this young blind woman whose intention is to avoid personal relationships at all costs and go on her way as a ghost in the woods, and when she proclaims that she has no concept of beauty, it’s believable. There are many scenes of Ichi trying to resist the emotional connection she forms with Toma and Kotaro and there’s even a duel for Ichi’s life by Toma who tries to give her motivation to fight for the precious existence she’d been given in spite of her hardships.
“Ichi” isn’t a perfect film though as the second half mostly becomes about Toma’s journey to draw his sword as he’s inflicted with shame from a past as a samurai, and the director mostly zeroes in on Toma engaging in war, and trying to find a way to use his sword as a means of self-defense. Ichi takes a noticeable back seat in the final half of the film and much of what the purpose of her journey involves is left ambiguous. Overall I enjoy the Zatoichi series and “Ichi” is a very entertaining branch off from the mythos with a slew of great performances including the stunning Haruka Ayase. While not a perfect film, “Ichi” is a sleek and entertaining action drama that takes the mythos of Zatoichi and twists it to unfold an entirely new story centered on a truly compelling inadvertent heroine. Haruka Ayase gives a very memorable performance and she’s truly steals every scene she inhabits.