Filmmaking in Japan has always been one of extremes in storytelling and technique. A country whose cultural and artistic history includes the vibrant and impressionistic stylings of Noh theater was bound to influence it’s filmmakers throughout it’s film history. One such filmmaker who has made a career at showing off his own brand of impressionistic and extreme film styles is the eclectic and mad genius Miike Takashi.
It’s difficult to try and find a Western comparison to Miike as he has jumped from genre to genre while sticking to no one particular. One year he would make a traditional horror film while the next he’ll make a gangster flick reminiscent of 60’s Peckinpah and 70’s Scorsese. He’s even done film musicals, westerns, fantasy and thrillers. To watch Miike’s work is to always be prepared for the unexpected and the extreme. One such film which fully shows Miike at his most extreme, unrestrained and controversial is his 2001 adaptation of a Japanese manga (Japanese comic book). Ichi the Killer (aka Koroshiya 1 in Japan) is a tour-de-force of excessive violence that outdoes even the gialli masters like Argento, Fulci, Lenzi and Bava. Miike’s use of violence in this adaptation puts it in the realm of nightmare surrealism that’s still to be surpassed and only matched in artistry by another auteur of film violence: Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.
The film at it’s most basic core is a tale of a vigilante, the titular character, and his opposite number, the equally dangerous and sadistic Yakuza enforcer, Kakihara. Ichi the Killer makes some changes from the original manga source, but keeps the convering two storylines of Ichi and Kakihara as they both wreak havoc on the Yakuza underworld of Tokyo until their bloodstained path intersects and the two finally confront each other on a Tokyo rooftop. To try and explain the rest of what Ichi the Killer was all about would be an exercise in futility. While the manga keeps the story pretty simple and easy to follow, in the hands of Miike the story took on a hallucinatory bent.
Storytelling has never been Miike’s strong suit. Only in Audition has his penchant for stylistic scene arrangement and directions been subdued enough to allow for a straightforward story. Miike shares alot in common with Dario Argento in creating dream-like (some would say nightmarish) sequences of images to propel a story from one violent encounter to the next. Throughout Ichi the Killer whatever semblance of a plot — one of revenge and depravity — gets heavy doses of moments where the story takes on the surreal. The ending in of itself really adds to the surrealistic tone of the film.
The characters in the film are very developed despite the over-the-top nature of the film. Every character in the film seem to have an inherent predilection to cause violence and pain. From the prostitutes to the children, violence and pain are the common denominator that everyone shares in this film. Of particular note is the character of Kakihara, the sadistic Yakuza killer who goes on a spree of torture and killing to find the person or persons who killed his mob boss. His “Glasgow Smile” predates Heath Ledger’s Joker smile by a good 6-7 years. Where the character of Ichi (played with an almost bi-polar quality by Nao Omori) takes on an almost superheroish role, Kakihara is a character study in the nature of sadomasochism at its most extreme. By film’s end Kakihara seems to be more of the hero of the film than Ichi. Kakihara’s enjoyment at inflicting pain and receiving it wa made more compelling by the performance of Tadanobu Asano. He gives a chilling and intriguing performance that’s infused with the rockstar-worship mentality that some Japanese action-stars are known for. Before Capt. Jack Sparrow, Asano’s Kakihara took the rockstar persona to new genre heights.
To say more about the film is really irrelevent since it’ll just be to point out that Miike’s film is ultra-violent. I must say that Ichi the Killer continues Miike’s visual commentary on the nature of violence and how despite its distasteful nature people will try to experience it to sate their personal curiosity. Ichi the Killer doesn’t so much as desensitize the audience to violence but shows them that we all have the capacity for infliciting and having it inflicted on us. Just watching the film could count as being both. The film is really not for a majority of the filmwatching community, but rest assured more people will have seen this film not because they’re fans of this type of film, but because they were curious.
The violence comes quick and lingers. This film is definitely not for everyone, but just like a carwreck many will be tempted to check it out just to see what everyone has been talking about. To call the violence in this film excessive is an understatement. Blood flows in this film in almost the same amount as those in Peter Jackson’s Dead-Alive. And just like in Jackson’s ode to Romero, Miike’s use of violence is cartoonish to the point that I expected Itchy and Scratchy and Tom and Jerry to make an apperance. The term arterial spray takes on a new meaning with Ichi the Killer and people who have seen Tarantino’s Kill Bill can see where his inspiration for the Tea House sequence came from. The film is definitely not for everyone and bound to be the cause of much heated debates from those who actually see it. In the end, Ichi the Killer will entertain and repulse in equal measure as, I honestly think, Miike intended the film to do.