Ichi the Killer (2001, Takashi Miike)
‘Shock value.’ What is it worth? When is a movie using audacious, provocative, visceral visuals to better suite its story and study its characters and when is a movie failing miserably to do anything, other than making people faint, turn off the tele or barf? This divide is separated by the thinnest of lines, with a single false move on behalf of the director or writers plunging the picture into ugly depths it could never crawl out of. Takashi Miike is one such director who has earned himself a reputation with a filmmography that is plentiful when it comes to stories of near incomparable violence. If a curious movie watcher wishes to discover the greatest heights of visual splendour and elliptical storetelling, they go watch a Kieslowksi. If they desire to witness the boldest beauty and grittiness of the wild, wild west, they go watch a Leone. If they are willing to submit themselves to outlandish, sado-masochistic horrors and thrills, someone should point them towards Miike.
2001 saw the theatrical release of Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer, an adaptation of a popular manga book. If 1999’s Audition really put him on the movie map for cinephiles the world over, then Ichi the Killer was the exclamation point. I’m Takashi Miike, and I can do whatever I want. Whether or not the film is a faithful adaptation of the source material shall not be discussed, for said source material has eluded me. In a few sentences, the picture depicts a wild hunt for a mysterious killer following the sudden disappearance of a yakuza boss, along with a significant amount of yens. The gang’s apparent second in command, a bleach-haired, grotesquely disfigured man named Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano) leads the rest of the men in the search after receiving vital tips from a contact, Jijii (Shinya Tsukamoto). The information that Kakihara and his boys are not privy to is that Jijii is the one sending the gang on this chase and increasing the violent drama between gangs. He does so with the help of a strange young adult who seems to exist in a state of psychological and emotional arrested development: Ichi…the killer(Nao Ômori). Ichi, whose self confidence, maturity and social skills are well below par, is the tool Jijii trained to become the most dangerous living weapon ever.
What was omitted from the above plot synopsis is that every 2 and a half minutes something wild occurs. Miike’s film runs at just over two hours, with virtually every minute offering near unforgettable scenes for the viewer to watch if they can or want to. Assessing Ichi the Killer is a delicate task because how one approaches the film will be influenced by the type of movie watcher hat one wears heading in. Some people can only wear one hat because that is the way they are and nothing will change that. Other can put themselves in the mood for something, or mentally prepare themselves what may or may not come next. Clearly, if the author is going to ‘recommend’ Ichi the Killer to anybody, it is to the latter group, and even then it is doubtful many will enjoy it. There is a reason why Miike’s work has attained cult classic status. All that being said, Ichi the Killer has a whole lot to offer. At its core is a comparative study of two very different characters. However, to locate the themes and layered character moments, one has to pile away through the spilled guts and mop away buckets of blood. Notwithstanding two scenes that feature intense, realistic physical violence towards women which had me cringe a bit, most of the ballet of blood offered by Miike is hyper-stylized. Graphic? Yes. At times shocking? Yes. However those with sharp movie viewing eyes should be able to understand that not everything is supposed to be taken too seriously or on face value. There is an element of one-upmanship to the proceedings, as Miike explores creative, over-the-top manners in which people can be killed or tortured, but due to the comic book nature of everything happening, there was never a moment when it became impossible for me to keep my eyes on the screen. There are even some droplets of humour, such as reaction shots of Kakihara’s men as he joyfully toys with people’s faces and about as many body parts as possible.
The center of the attention is in fact sado-masochistic Kakihara, who actually has more screen time than the titular character. Played with an odd mixture of nihilism and passion by Asano, Kakihara roams the Tokyo streets and condo buildings in search of the latest clues that will lead him and his yakuza members to this unknown Ichi person. Extraction of information may be deemed a speciality of Kakihara’s, although whether or not a captive is knowledgeable of what Kakihara is after, they will suffer excruciating pain regardless. Come to think of it, extracting information is not the madman’s speciality. Rather, torture is, but if the torture methods do indeed provide him with further clues, then all the better. It is eventually revealed that one of the reasons the beach-blond psycho is intent on finding his superior is because of the latter’s violent tendencies. Kakihara feeds off of pain, both that inflicted and received. Delivering what hurts is a fascination and feeling the hurt is how he connects with otherhe likes and those who oppose him. Pain is what reminds people that they are alive, that they are flesh and blood, that they can be destroyed. Kakihara, for how long now the viewer does not know, is fixated with the notion of physical pain. It fuels him to a degree. Whereas regular people think of soft, sensual touches and the sharing of loving feelings as things that drive them and which they strive for, in Kakihara’s case it is the ecstasy resulting from neurons that tell him ‘Hey, that hurts!’ Methods of delivering pain therefore need to be explored to the fullest degree, and throughout the film we get to that that the yakuza member has already earned his PhD in that department.Finding his boss entails returning to the days when he could really live again through pain.
Juxtaposed to all of this the much quieter, child-like Ichi, who, despite what reservations he may have, performs whatever nefarious bidding Jijii sends him forth to accomplish. Unlike Kakihara, Ichi is not in the search for pain. On the contrary, he is easily frightened, withdraws from others who bully him and on more than one occasion expresses his unwillingness to kill anymore. However, Ichi is a bit of a dullard and is eventually swayed each time into liquidating Jijii’s targets. Perhaps more accurate an assessment is that he is a child caught in a young man’s body. Even the costume he wears when on the prowl for yakuza gang members is ridiculous, resembling something a child would sport for Halloween. The confusion that reigns inside of him causes certain misinterpretations of signals. When to kill someone who should die and when to hold back for in front of someone who does not need to be sliced into bits do not always compute properly, leading to one of the film’s wildest scenes in which a women, who was part of the scheme to brainwash Ichi into become a hunter, pleads for her life because she does into want to die. His superior Jijii dictates when to deliver pain, the reasons for which can be summed up as a bunch of falsities. Since Ichi is so impressionable and immature, he goes along with it. Although Miike has one of the strangest ways of exploring Ichi, it can be argued that the character is a tragic figure.
Ichi and Kakihara are both characters who are in search of feeling alive, but their respective desires are channelled in totally different ways. On the one hand, Ichi is childlike, prone to emotional outbursts and would arguably rather live in peace if he could or knew how. He even thinks he has found a friend in Kaneko (Hiroyuki Tanaka), one of Kakihara’s men (who is at that time unaware of Ichi true nature). On the other hand, Kakihara gets high on life through the wear and tear of human flesh. It is the emotive versus the physical. A faceoff between one man who wants to feel emotion by escaping violence and another whose only way to understand emotion is to relish in the violence.
Whatever re-watch factor Takashi Miike’s film has shall be determined by the viewer. Some work must be done on the part of the viewer in order to discern some of the thematic layers that lie beneath the massacres which unfold on screen, but there are some interesting things happening with the characters besides hysterics and sado-masochism.