Megumi YokoyamaMitsuki KogaYosuke KubozukaHiroki Matsukata
Medium: film
Year: 2008
Director: Fumihiko Sori
Writer: Kan Shimosawa
Keywords: historical, samurai, Zatoichi
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Actor: Haruka Ayase, Shido Nakamura, Yosuke Kubozuka, Takao Osawa, Kazuma Chiba, Akira Emoto, Yuko Endo, Daishiro Hano, Horiken, Yoshihiro Ishizuka, Masaki Kato, Mitsuki Koga, Usagi Kono, Eiko Kotake, Toshiki Masuda, Shoichiro Masumoto, Hiroki Matsukata, Wakako Matsuzaka, Masaaki Nagae, Shiro Namiki, Go Riju, Mayumi Sada, Ayumu Saito, Ryosuke Shima, Tetta Sugimoto, Riki Takeuchi, Kumiko Tsuchiya, Eri Watanabe, Megumi Yokoyama
Format: 120 minutes
Website category: Japanese
Review date: 2 June 2010
It's okay. I wouldn't recommend it unless you like that kind of thing, but I liked its protagonists and it's a perfectly reasonable example of its genre. Unfortunately it's another Japanese period drama set in the era when men did their thinking with their swords. Samurai are boring.
The one-line description of this film is Haruka Ayase playing Zatoichi. Haruka Ayase is the highly attractive and rather good lead actress of films like Cyborg She, Oppai Volleyball and Happy Flight and I'm a big enough fan of hers that she's the main reason I was watching this film. Meanwhile Zatoichi is the blind swordsman hero of a gazillion samurai films in and around the 1970s, not to mention a recent revival by Takeshi Kitano in 2003. Of course Ayase's playing Zatoichi's daughter rather than the man himself, but there's no real difference between them if you consider their defining traits, e.g. blindness, gambling and killing people. This had sounded like a disaster to me. I was still looking forward to it, but Ayase's an adorable ex-bikini model with a gift for comedy. Despite her surprisingly effective turn as a neo-Schwarzenegger in Cyborg She, it hadn't really occurred to me that she might be able to pull off the the role of a tough-as-nails wanderer who goes around killing samurai and yakuza. Fair play to her, I was wrong. Theoretically this isn't a challenging role in terms of acting range, but Ayase's a million miles outside her comfort zone and yet she had me believing that she was: (a) blind and (b) a nearly unstoppable killer.
Ichi the character is more tragic than Zatoichi, though. She's wandering Japan in search of her lost father and has pretty much cut herself off from the rest of the human race. The film's strongest section is at the beginning, before all the swordsmen have shown up and we're more clearly focused on our protagonists. We start with women and children in the snow. A man has sex with a blind woman, but afterwards when she demands payment, he and two friends start giving her a kicking. Ichi is theoretically present during all this, but isolated. She avoids both men or women and seems to have no interest in even talking to them. All this could easily have been a turn-off for the audience, but in fact the film's playing all this as a delicate character study and I thought it did an impressive job of humanising its chilly protagonist.
That's just half the story, though. The other protagonist I call the idiot. That's not his name, but it's close enough to be funny when small children call him that. More precisely he's a wandering swordsman who can't draw his sword and seems to know nothing about anything. The film has a lot of fun with him and Ichi, since she's brilliant at everything he's so useless at and yet people see that he's a man and jump to the wrong conclusions. Mr Idiot is played by an actor called Takao Osawa and I liked him enough to look up his CV in search of other films to watch him in. He's wonderful! This could have been the world's most annoying character, but Osawa makes him adorable. You've got to love the way him in the gambling scene, for instance, swinging from near-paralysis to a cock-of-the-walk swagger so fast that you'd think he was manic depressive. He wouldn't have lasted five minutes in a card game. Later the film takes pity on him and makes him less pathetic, but even so I thought he was a terrific creation. The only problem is his big struggle with himself, which just ends up looking weird.
Apart from them, the other character I liked was the town's grandad figure. Apart from them, though, it's the usual parade of humourless macho losers. Yes, I know, I'm watching the wrong genre. There's a bunch of yakuza protecting their small town, but they're the good guys. Eh? They're dressed in blue and they're led by Yosuke Kubozuka, who I have no interest in ever seeing again but at least he isn't taking the piss. He's playing it dead straight in his one-dimensional role and I believed in him. The bad guys though are an army of punks dressed in red, whose leaders appear to be having a bet on who can overact the most and are dressed like an eighties boy band. Check out that hair. Bet you didn't know Japan had hair dye in the Edo period! Admittedly Ichi also seems to have an order with her local time traveller for hair and beauty products, but at least her choice of henna is less bad than butterscotch.
The weird thing though is that one of these clowns, Banki, is played by someone (Shido Nakamura) who's appeared in things I thought were good, like voicing Ryuuk in Death Note (both live-action and anime) and playing Lieutenant Ito in Letters from Iwo Jima. Maybe the director was deliberately making the villains look dorky? They're certainly a long way from the traditional samurai image despite the fact that we're told they're ex-samurai, while in theory I approve of villains not always looking cool. However these ones I found a little tiresome.
There are also one or two moments where the acting is simply not up to the required level, rather than merely being overdone. It's only a tiny thing, adding up to only the smallest fraction of a percent of the running time, but I found it disappointing.
Overall, I'm probably not the right person to be reviewing this genre. As I said at the beginning, I tend to find samurai (and ronin, etc.) uninteresting. If you're like me, you probably wouldn't turn this off if you found it on television, but you probably wouldn't seek it out either. However it has a really good first act, it has a moving bit at the end and I was impressed by both Ayase and Osawa. It looks pretty. I won't be rewatching it, but I don't regret hunting it down either.