“Ichi the Killer” is easily one of the most controversial films of the last decade, and its undeniably extreme content has become synonymous with the name of its director, the notorious Takashi Miike. For many, this is the quintessential Miike film, a hyper stylised visceral barrage of over the top gore, torture and rape, which hangs loosely on a threadbare skeleton of inconsequential plotting and that boasts a madman’s sense of logic. Whilst all this is certainly true, as “Ichi the Killer” is incredibly grotesque and overwhelmingly sadistic, beneath the surface lurks a fierce intelligence, albeit a psychotic one, which attempts to make an intellectual point through antagonising and unapologetically provoking its viewer rather than any kind of given subtlety.
As a result, the film works on two levels, either as an archetypal example of pulp comic book splatter cinema (which is unsurprising, given that it is in fact based on a manga by screenwriter Hideo Yamamoto), or as an almost avant garde exploration of cinematic violence and audience implication in onscreen sadism. “Ichi” is a film into which the director has quite clearly projected a sense of his own ego and thematic obsessions. Although this fact is unlikely to win over those viewers unable to see past the violence (which in itself is forgivable, as there is an astounding amount of unpleasantness on display), it does provide, for those who care to discover, a fascinating assault on the senses which begs further analysis.
The plot, such as it is, is relatively simple, and more than anything “Ichi” is a character study of two exceptionally psychotic individuals and the twisted worlds they inhabit. The story begins as a Yakuza boss named Anjo mysteriously disappears, along with 100 million yen. This spurs super-masochist henchman Kakihara (the excellent Tadanobu Asano, recently in Kitano’s updated “Zatoichi”) into a desperate search for the man who was not only his gangland superior, but his beloved partner in pain, and the only one who had been able to beat and torture him into a sense of fulfillment. Kakihara rapidly makes enemies of the other Yakuza, unsurprisingly as his interrogation methods generally involve kidnapping them and subjecting them to horrific acts of sadism.
The truth behind Anjo’s disappearance is that he fell victim to Ichi (Nao Omori, “Vibrator”), an incredibly disturbed young man who has been dressing in superhero garb and slashing his way through the Yakuza ranks. Ichi is himself acting under hypnosis, controlled by Jijii (Shinya Tsukamoto, director of “Tetsuo”, amongst others), a sinister mastermind who has an agenda of his own. As the film progresses, generally via the decimation of the majority of the supporting cast, we learn more about Ichi and Kakihara, and the two men are drawn inexorably together. This sets the stage for a bloody face off between two characters, which could very well be described as perverse living embodiments of sadism and masochism.
It would be remiss, and indeed futile, to review “Ichi the Killer” without a discussion of its content, which is in many ways the film’s defining characteristic. Simply put, the film is insanely brutal, and contains truly shocking scenes of horribly inventive torture. The very fabric of the film is soaked with blood, and it is rare for more than a few moments to pass without some unfortunate cast member meeting an unpleasant end. The catalogue of atrocities also includes a number of rapes scenes and acts of sexual violence, and almost every frame exudes perversion and psychosis. Whilst these comments may serve as a recommendation to some, be warned: “Ichi the Killer” is a visceral, at times nauseating experience, and one which is not to be taken lightly.
As well as being violent and unpleasant, “Ichi the Killer” is a nihilistic, cynical film. Whereas most Japanese films concerned with the Japanese underworld extol the values of loyalty and brotherhood, Miike shows them as a shallow, selfish lot driven solely by their desires. The only loyalty on display here is as a direct result of fear, or as a means for personal gain. This theme is crystallised in the character of Kakihara, who quite clearly does not care for anyone apart from himself, and for whom almost every act he commits is motivated by his own desires, often in a fashion that borders on being masturbatory.
There are no positive characters in the film whatsoever, a fact which further defines the film as an antagonistic, visceral assault. This is not to suggest that the film is underwritten, as it does have a very strong sense of characterisation that is generally lacking in extreme cinema. The characters of Ichi and Kakihara are very well written, and the film spends a great deal of time exploring their psychosis, and though perhaps not offering concrete explanations for their behaviour, or indeed portraying them as realistic human beings, it at least presents them as fascinating, complex individuals. Similarly, the relationships in the film are surprisingly intricate, if not as a result of the plotting, which is at best melodramatic, then through their interactions. Although these are generally driven by self-interest, a number of them are actually quite touching, such as that between Ichi and one of Kakihara’s goons.
Thematic concerns and violent content aside, “Ichi the Killer” is a very well directed film, and one which is drenched with Miike’s unique style. He uses a wide variety of camera tricks, and keeps everything moving at such an incredibly kinetic pace, that the film as a whole come across as being highly energetic. This dynamism, coupled with Miike’s provocative approach to the material, makes watching the film an almost invigorating experience, where the viewer barely has time to catch their breath.
In keeping with the nature of the film, the narrative and style take a wild shift into surrealism at the end. Here, Miike chooses to frustrate, offering a nonsensical conclusion, of which in-depth interpretation is pointless. Although this may exasperate some, it provides the film with a fitting anti-climax, possibly as a means of delivering one final sucker punch to the viewer rather than launching into the expected orgy of violence. This frustration and restlessness are themes obvious throughout the film, symbolised by Kakihara’s neverending, fruitless search for satisfaction through pain.
Though it could be seen to be disappointing, the conclusion does not take away from what is an undeniably exhilarating experience, and “Ichi the Killer” is one of the most exciting Japanese films of the last few years. Although the extreme violence and sadism may prove to be too much for some viewers, and may serve to drown the film’s underlying purpose in a sea of blood and viscera, the fact remains that Miike has produced something which shocks and startles, which is no mean feat in such jaded times.
Takashi Miike (director) / Sakichi Sato, Hideo Yamamoto (screenplay)
CAST: Tadanobu Asano …. Kakihara
Nao Omori …. Ichi
Shinya Tsukamoto …. Jijii
Paulyn Sun …. Karen