Not to be confused with Ichi the Killer, director Takashi Miike’s ultra-violent yakuza thriller, this Ichi is yet another variant entry of the Japanese Blind Swordsman lore known as Zatoichi. In this case the blind sword wielder is a lonely and depressed young woman whose day to day meanderings are driven by one solitary goal.
As a blind orphan, Ichi (Haruka Ayase) was rescued and trained by Zatoichi to master the sword. Unable to care for her himself he sent her to become a member of a goze – a term used for visually impaired women who have taken on jobs as musicians for hire – but left her with a little ‘calling’ bell with a promise to visit when rung to comfort her. After being forced upon by a goze patron and accidentally killing him, Ichi is banished from the goze and began travelling the land in search of the lost Zatoichi.
On the road she meets Toma Fujihira (Takao Ohsawa) – a hapless samurai who cannot remove his saber from its sheathing, guilt ridden due to an accident he had as a child while playing with it. Their journey brings them to a small resort, or “Inn” village ruled by a benevolent Yakuza known as the Shirakawa clan but now being held under siege by Banki (Shidô Nakamura), the scar faced gang leader of the Banki-to with a snivelling laugh.
That night, Toma decides to do some gambling at the local parlor and with the help of Ichi’s acute hearing Toma wins handsomely while the Banki-to participating in the game loose. As Toma, Ichi and Shirakawa boy who has started clinging to Ichi depart into the night, the flustered Banki-to follow to reclaim their lost wagers. As Toma once again stammers with his sword, Ichi springs into action and slices to shreds the outskilled Banki-to. Moments after the battle, Toraji (Yosuke Kubozuka), the son of the reigning Shirakawa comes across the fallen Banki-to and, mistaking Toma as the adept swordsman, hires him to protect the Shirakawa and help rid the village from Banki’s oppression.
His secret now out having frozen in action when confronted by the Banki-to in the presence of the Shirakawa, Toma is beaten and berated. But when the elder Shirakawa is slain by Banki, Toraji decides that enough is enough and that the Shirakawa will finally stand up to Banki with a final, all out battle. Scorned by the Shirakawa members, Toraji lets Toma join the fight, goading him to act becoming of a samurai.
The direction is a bit uneven especially in the beginning as transitions between light comedy and poignant drama are somewhat awkward and untimely. But once they arrive in the village the story finds its footing. There are also plenty of solemn and introspective points, either with Ichi distancing herself from Toma, and when Ichi is briefly held captive by Banki. The battles are decent and bloody but don’t expect the usual acrobatics or gimmicks.