CAPSULE: ICHI THE KILLER (2001)

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PLOT: A sadomasochistic Yakuza relishes being hunted by a mysterious hitman named Ichi, hoping the killer will bring him to undreamed of heights of pain.

Still from Ichi the Killer (2001)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ichi is strange, for sure, but as important as it was in developing Takashi Miike’s cult and bringing his work before more round-eyes, it values gruesomeness and shock value over pure weirdness.

COMMENTS: Ichi is notorious for its violence and sadism, and rightfully so; but, as a Takashi Miike joint, it bears an undeniable brand of quality and style. Also, as is typical with Miike, it’s uneven, almost by design, changing from yakuza intrigue to gross-out torture fest to campy black comedy at the crack of the director’s whip. The complicated plot echoes both Yojimbo (in the way one character pits rival crime factions against one another) and Memento (in the way a vulnerable man’s memories are manipulated to make him a tool of vengeance). Tadanobu Asano gives a cool, cult star-making performance as Kakihara, the ruthlessly sadomasochistic villain with dyed blonde hair and unexplained facial scars that have carved his face into a perma-Joker grin. As with every Miike movie, it contains a few moments of transcendent gonzo poetry—my personal favorite being when Jijii (played by Tetsuo director Shinya Tsukamoto) strips off his shirt to reveal an improbably jacked physique.

Still, even Miike’s best movies tend to have troughs along with its peaks, and Ichi has a number of problems that prevent it from rising very far above its nihilistic base. The ostensible protagonist—Ichi of the title—is not at all believable as a legendary assassin; in fact, his prowess at killing is completely absurd in a way that doesn’t match, or serve, the serious and frightening tone of the Kakihara’s segments. Nor does the performance of otherwise fine actor Nao Ohmori fully exploit the sympathy one might have for the character, had he been portrayed in a less cartoonish manner.

Even more problematic is the film’s violence—not its extent so much as Miike’s inconsistent attitude to depicting it. At times, torture and cruelty are depicted with a realism that makes one cringe and empathize with the victim, while at other times it’s treated with a insouciance (as when a shocked face is detached from its head and shown sliding down a bloody wall). Sometimes these inconsistent tones coexist in the same scene: Ichi witnesses a brutal rape, with the victim’s face painfully swollen from a merciless beating, then dispatches the assailant by splitting him vertically from head to toe with his razor shoe. In some sense, alternating the absurd and realistic approaches to violence makes the scene more nightmarish, keeping the audience off-balance by mixing fearful anticipation with an unexpected result. I can appreciate this effect, to some extent, without actually enjoying or approving of it. The problem is that it’s more authentically sadistic to treat suffering as a joke than to face it head-on; Ichi too often takes on the sadist’s attitude that others’ pain is entertainment. Although torture and gore is pervasive and extreme throughout Ichi—including a man hanging suspended from hooks dug into his skin, among other atrocities—the violence in Miike’s previous Audition is far more harrowing and meaningful, because a fleshed-out human beings whom we can care about suffer (and inflict) it, instead of the pain being just a revolting exhibition occurring between two caricatures.

Ichi the Killer is one of those canonical cult movies (like Donnie Darko) that is constantly being restored, tinkered with and reissued in new home video editions. The latest on offer is the 2018 Blu-ray from Well Go USA, which bills itself as the “definitive remastered edition.” While it is reportedly an improvement on the 2010 Blu from Tokyo Shock, it lacks any significant supplemental features aside from the decade-old commentary track from Miike and original manga writer Hideo Yamamoto recycled from an old DVD release. In any release, it should go without saying to beware the English-language dub.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the kind of deeply horrible and bizarre movie that really can only be viewed from between your fingers, or behind the sofa, for most of its two-hours-plus running time.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who called it “Pretty weird, more leaning on subtle absurdity, but when [Miike] goes for it, he can deliver some really great black comic intellect…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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