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On the commentary track for one of his films, director Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City”) relates a story that I’ll paraphrase here: While taking questions about his low-budget debut “El Mariachi,” a critic asked about the significance of a tortoise that crosses the path of the titular character while he’s walking along a stretch of highway. The critic had a theory that the tortoise represented the mariachi’s journey through life or some such thing. Rodriguez informed this deep thinking critic that he found the tortoise at the side of the road and decided it’d be something interesting to put in the film. Rodriguez’s point was that having watched his subtitled foreign film, viewers assumed “El Mariachi” was more layered than it really was. According to the writer/director himself, “Mariachi” was an action movie made for the Spanish-language market, and is ultimately nothing more than a B-movie.
This misadventure by the critic described above seems to happen a lot with foreign language movies. Viewers who normally thumb their noses at the Hollywood mainstream heap ebullient praise on foreign genre films that are just as derivative, commercial and simplistic as domestic products, and sees layers of subtext where none exists. Takashi Miike’s “Ichi the Killer” is such a film. From the other side of the world, with no cultural reference point, it seems like another entry in Miike’s extreme resume. But take a look at the credits and you’ll spot that one of the film’s backers is EMG, also known as the Emperor Media Group. EMG is an all-powerful talent agency behind the crime against humanity that was the “Twins Effect” movies, and if early casting rumors are to be believed, one of the actors mentioned for the part of Ichi was none other than Canto-pop superstar Edison Chen.
“Ichi the Killer’s” plot is simplicity itself. During a visit with a hooker, the head of the Anjo yakuza gang goes missing with a boatload of cash. Convinced that the Boss is still alive, Anjo’s head lieutenant Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano) cuts a swath of pain and death through Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward to find him. Before you start to respect Kakihara’s loyalty, understand that Kakihara is an unrepentant masochist, and that his favorite partner in abuse was Boss Anjo. In truth, Anjo really is dead, and the assassin is the titular Ichi, a special kind of nutjob and repressed sadist, as well as the brainwashed dupe of yakuza informant Jijii (Shinya Tsukamoto, director of “Tetsuo: the Iron Man” and “A Snake of June”). Toss in this madness a parade of henchmen, killers, junkies, whores, and dirty cops who combine to provide the highest casualty rate within a single cast since “Reservoir Dogs.”
Any talk about “Ichi the Killer” has to note the graphic violence and gore. Much like Peter Jackson’s “Dead Alive” and “Meet the Feebles,” “Ichi” is a movie you have to see to believe. Its preferred brand of violence is (with a few exceptions that I’ll get to later) akin to a live-action “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoon. However, gore needs some substance, otherwise it’s just a flashy exercise for the effects crew. And that’s where “Ichi” comes up short.
This is the story of two polar opposites on a collision course with one another, and that central conflict is all that passes for a story arc. While the movie ends things with a rather anti-climactic resolution, it also adds an annoyingly ambivalent epilogue that’s not explained in any way, shape or form. It was then that I wondered if American viewers would put up with this kind of indulgence in a domestic mainstream or B-grade movie. Probably not.
At the end of the day, the motivations of Ichi, Kakihara, and their hangers-on are shallow at best and insulting at worst; especially in the case of the comeuppance Ichi lays down on a particularly vicious pimp. As Ichi watches the pimp beat and rape one of his hookers, he becomes aroused by the display and ultimately kills the abuser, as well as the victim. And another hooker is victim to an especially brutal interrogation that includes rape. For the most part, the women in “Ichi” suffer the kind of ugly abuse that happens God knows how many times around the world every day. It’s as if Miike wants to show you these horrors so we will root for Ichi to butcher them, and that feels an awful lot like cheap manipulation to me.
Once you look past the blood and guts, Miike does a remarkable job of creating a unique and nihilistic peek at the modern Japanese underworld. Life as a mobster in Miike’s films is an ugly existence. It’s every nightmare you may have heard about the soul crushing workplace, except that your boss will kill you for screwing up if the competition doesn’t get to you first. As outrageous as things get in a typical Takashi Miike movie (if there is such a thing), he has a unique talent for presenting “the Life” as just another job people do to make ends meet. As usual for a Miike film, “Ichi the Killer” is extremely well-crafted, in particular the special make-up effects. He throws in his trademark visceral camerawork and black comedy, so while the movie does drag in places at over two hours, there’s always something interesting going on.
There’s little about “Ichi” that’s meant to be taken seriously, but that raises the question of why we’re supposed to buy into the backstories that give the characters, and by extension the movie, emotional depth. You can’t use “It’s just a movie” to deflect criticisms of the minimal plot and unrelenting violence, some of it sexual-based, then ask the audience to accept transparent attempts to achieve some greater artistic depth. You can’t have it both ways.
Takashi Miike (director) / Sakichi Sato, Hideo Yamamoto (screenplay)
CAST: Tadanobu Asano …. Kakihara
Nao Omori …. Ichi
Shinya Tsukamoto …. Jijii
Paulyn Sun …. Karen