Decent female protagonists are still reasonably hard to come by. After all the feminist revolutions, and wonderful actresses that have come to the screen over the years, it is still simply harder to put women in all the roles men get. Sure, you can go the Sigourney Weaver Aliens route and simply butch them up to fit the part, but - as in real life - women and men have very differing skills over one another, and so actresses are compelled to use their sexuality in much the same way that actors are pushed into macho roles. I'm generalising of course, but it is not often you have a heroine doing all the things a hero might do (albeit in a way that caters for the fact that she may not be totally muscle-bound), whilst remaining distinctly feminine.
Erin Brokovich is a strong contender, Cate Blanchett stood alone in The Gift, and The Village gave us a surprise twist in the centre-stage placement of Bryce Dallas Howard's blind heroine. Whilst Tomb Raider and Resident Evil surely represent a decade's worth of male geek fantasies - and shouldn't really count, perhaps the overall body of work done by the likes of Milla Jovovich and Angelina Jolie on the whole come close to giving us decent action heroines too.
The character of Zatoichi is apparently one of the most famous fictional characters in history. In the West this statement seems hard to believe, as many may not have ever come across him until relatively recently, but in the East he was the central character in nearly thirty films spanning three decades. After the actor famous for playing Zatoichi in ALL of the numerous films - Shintaru Katsu - passed away, acclaimed Japanese writer/director/actor Takeshi Kitano was personally requested to bring the role back to the Big Screen, and he did so with a vengeance, giving us his 2003 interpretation, an amazing entry within his colourful filmography. Now, just half a decade later, the character has been revisited once more - and reinterpreted in an even more unusual way - with the title character now a woman.
It's 19th Century Japan and Ichi is a blind woman who roams the Japanese landscape touting herself as a Goze, and playing her Shamisen (Japanese guitar) to entertain. Most who encounter her are blissfully unaware of her hidden skills, but secretly she is an expertly trained swordswoman, an almost unstoppable force of nature when she draws her weapon. After coming to a quaint little town, she soon discovers that the ruling Yakuza clan are at war with a group of merciless bandits called the Banki-to. Befriending Toma a bumbling but well-meaning ronin (masterless samurai), who seeks to peddle his seemingly inadequate skills with a sword for work as a yojimbo (bodyguard) to the Yakuza, the two inadvertently get caught up in the war, all the while discovering the truth about one another: about what made Ichi so cold and lacking in emotion, and about what made Toma so hesitant with his sword.
The new female vision of the classic Zatoichi character is novel mostly only in terms of her being a woman but that does, in turn, afford her some unusual developments. She has a sordid history, a painful childhood and a worse early adulthood, where exploitation led her to roaming the countryside alone, in search of the one man she remembers to have shown her some kindness. Practising the same classic style of sword-play that Zatoichi fans will be familiar with - the super-quick reverse-draw, strike, re-sheath manoeuvre that the various incarnations of the blind character all perform - she is most certainly a force to be reckoned with, although it is perhaps her cold nature and seemingly impenetrable emotional barriers that make her even more unpredictable and deadly. She is so determined on her path to finding this long-lost father-figure that she has left no capacity for anything else in her life: happiness, love etc. - most of it having been stripped away by events in her past.
Meanwhile her eccentric companion is the polar opposite to her, completely in touch with his emotions, and largely governed by them too. He's the most chirpy ronin you are likely to encounter this side of Toshiro Mifune's Sanjuro. His persistent 'charm' slowly chips away at her ice-cold diamond exterior and, all the while, he emerges as something significantly more than just the bumbling fool he initially comes across as. And as the story arcs of the central characters develop we also follow their participation in the ongoing feud against the vicious gang who are oppressing the village. It's not an overly cerebral story, but it is far more focussed on characters than you would normally expect.
The swordplay is, expectedly, very much at the forefront - and extremely well done too, stylish but not excessively so. But whilst ex-model Haruka Ayase excels at bringing character to her ostensibly delicate but inwardly hardened protagonist, she does not fully convince with her sword. Still, it largely goes unnoticed amidst some of her acutely observed shuffles and quick-draw repertoire, and it is more than worth overlooking to follow the development of her shy warrior variation on the classic Zatoichi character. Ayase may have a modelling background - obvious from her striking beauty - but her performance here clearly shows that she has much more to offer, capable of exuding grace, inner strength, bitterness, determination and hidden vulnerability in what could have easily been a one-dimensional characterisation.
Takao Osawa's goofy Toma is painted with just as much attention to detail, and the Yakuza men all bring life to their parts, but on the side of the gang, things are much harder to judge - and this is a side-effect of one of the film's biggest failings: its costumes. Silly as it may sound, whoever ran the costume department must have been on acid when they put together the Banki-to outfits. Either that or they spent too much of the budget on unnecessary (but again not overly distracting) CGI blood-spray and didn't have enough to make the villains look anything other than comical. Of course it did not help that the lead villain looked like a eye-patch-wearing Quentin Tarantino double, with about as much acting talent. The only other downside worth mentioning might be the ending which, to be honest, does not feel all that satisfying. Still, you never know, we may get a sequel to even things up.
All in all, though, this new interpretation of the classic Zatoichi character is quite a success really, a refreshing take on a tried-and-tested formula, with a decent amount of unusual ideas and clever concepts, mixed in amidst the standard blind samurai slash antics. Fans of Kitano's previous interpretation may need a moment to get used to this variation, as will follower of the classic Shintaru Katsu-starring films, no doubt, but this reinvention definitely proves itself over the course. The budget comes into question in a couple of instances (either that or the style, because they clearly had enough money for CGI) and some of the villains come across as caricatures, but the strength of the two leads holds out and the narrative is perfectly engaging. Enjoyable, to say the least.