Monday, July 12, 2010

The Blind Leading the Blind

I have to admit that I'm a complete sucker for Zatoichi, the blind swordsman, but I always find it odd when someone else besides Katsu Shintaro reprises the role. I mean, Katsu played the role in 26 movies and a television series. He pretty much laid claim to the role for all time. It just seemed wrong to see the character kinda sorta updated for the West in Blind Fury, with Rutger Hauer in the role, and more traditionally with Takeshi Kitano in the 2003 revival. It's awkward. This problem is sidestepped in Ichi (2008, directed by Fumihiko Sori), in which the blind swordsman himself is absent, replaced by his daughter. She has the same lethal sword stroke and the same blindness, but because she's NOT Zatoichi, the cognitive dissonance is largely absent. That's not to say the movie doesn't have problems of its own.

The basic plot should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Zatoichi movie. Ichi (Haruka Ayase) wanders the countryside as an itinerant musician rather than as a masseuse. There is the obligatory gambling scene in which Ichi can hear whether the dice are odds or evens. There is the band of yakuza thugs terrorizing the town. There is the hidden sword and the hidden skill with the sword. All of this isn't so much a formula as it is a ritual. With this being a distaff version of the character, some changes have been made. The biggest change is that Ichi herself isn't the deadliest swordsperson in the movie. In fact, she gets her ass handed to her by the leader of the Yakuza. Takao Ôsawa plays the hero/romantic interest of the piece. He's better than Ichi, too, though he's kinda sorta castrated by a trauma in his past. He can't draw his sword until the very end of the film. The confrontation between him and the bandit leader turns into one of those heroic bloodshed moments that so enamoured Chang Cheh and John Woo.

For the most part, this is completely sexist, and it's surprising to find this iteration in Japanese genre film, which sometimes fetishizes its death-dealing heroines. Still, Haruka Ayase seems a good deal softer than Meiko Kaji ever did, I guess. Be all that as it may, it's disappointing that this becomes about the men and their problems rather than Ichi herself.

Ichi's story is interesting enough in itself to carry the movie, but it serves here mainly as a counterpoint to the way the movie downgrades the archetype. She sets out on her own to find her father after being sexually assaulted and killing her attacker. The movie makes a good deal of hay out of her "disgrace," though I don't know that it endorses the notion. There is a good deal of violence against the women in this movie, but the movie refrains from really turning Ichi into an archetype of female revenge even as she chops up the rapists and exploiters throughout the movie. I'm a bit troubled by the regressive way it places women in the background, even its ostensible heroine. I mean, if you're going to do this, what's the point of creating this particular character in the first place.

I'm also kind of bothered by the way this movie turns into a romance and with how it perpetuates the myth of the regeneration of manhood through violence. Maybe I'm just being picky. Maybe I'm letting feminism get in the way of enjoying the action.

As befits an updating of Zatoichi, this film is almost classical in its approach to filming action. It eschews the fast cut shaky-cam style of contemporary action films in favor of a more Kurosawan approach. It rarely gets closer to the action than a medium two-shot, but it does indulge in slow-motion. There's blood, but there aren't the geysers of blood from the balmier days of the chambara. The blood here is digital, but it's not overly intrusive.

This approach is appealing, but it has a drawback. Lacking the eye for mise en scene and editing of a Kurosawa (or even a Fukasaku or a Misumi), this approach has a kind of flattening effect. The movie never really wows the viewer with either the action or the style. In this regard it's almost exactly like a mid-period Zatoichi movie, but that shouldn't be counted as a compliment. Much as I love those movies, I'm under no illusions about their aesthetic merits, just as I'm under no illusions about this film, either. Still, it's an attractive movie and an entertaining chop-em up. I wish I could like it better than I do.

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