Ichi the Killer: A Venture into the Surreal World of Pain
Exploits of a Pain Junkie
Takashi Miike's Audition was my introduction to his work, the Japanese horror film revealing the terrifying capabilities of a needy and psychopathic actress. Miike's known for being one of those directors who pumps out movie after movie almost every year, the majority of them winding up overlooked and poorly received. There's one other movie of his that I've seen, one which I can say is most likely his masterpiece, the splatterpunk crime drama Ichi the Killer. I have the unrated DVD edition, which nearly runs at the length of an epic at 240 minutes, and is from what I've heard far superior to the rated version.
The film is experimental above all things, toying with filming techniques and editing, and it's based on a manga series of the same name. I can't say whether or not it's a faithful adaptation since I haven't read the source material, but I can say the film stands well on its own.
An exploration of sadomasochism and all aspects of it, Ichi starts off with the straight-up gory murder of mob boss Anjo, committed by a mysterious figure, and we follow a clean-up crew to the aftermath lead by a man named Jijii, played by Shinya Tsukamoto. The gore in this scene and many others is so intense that it's more like a cartoon and surreal than anything gritty and disturbing, though a few of the torture scenes in this film may get your teeth gritting.
As the film progresses we meet Kakihara (portrayed by Tadanobu Asano), who is almost by default the new leader in Anjo's gang, and he believes that Anjo has simply been kidnapped. Kakihara is quickly established as the bleach-blond psychotic pain junkie in the film, with two slits in his cheeks at both sides of his mouth, only held together by piercings. He enjoys both torture and receiving pain equally, and sees the art of sadism as “serious business”. Early on, Kakihara is seen torturing a man in the worst ways, and even sacrifices the end of his tongue as an apology to the syndicate when he finds he's tortured the wrong man.
Ichi (Nao Omori), the only real murderer in the film, is a more complicated, psychologically damaged and confused character, who associates violence directly with sexuality, and Jijii is the man who's managed to manipulate Ichi to kill those Jijii wants dead by convincing him that they're old bullies from his school. The way Ichi kills is usually not by determination and firm deliberation, but rather a result of unstable impulses, which make Ichi a much more childish, disturbing and tragic character. Ironically, Kakihara believes Ichi, having not met him, is a true sadistic genius.
Virtually every character in this film is a sadomasochist to some degree, even the fired cop Kaneko who's only acting as one of Kakihara's bodyguards to provide for his son, and it's even mentioned by one of the characters in the film that most people have some level of sadism and masochism in themselves, reasoning that Ichi, as an exception, is 100% pure sadist.
Alien Sun plays Karen, who is yet another tool of Jijii's, whose motives aren't ever truly made clear other than he seems to want to pit the two major crime gangs against each other and see them all fall by his doing. Karen speaks both Japanese and English throughout the film fluently, and later it's made apparent that she's more of a masochist herself, finding Kakihara attractive due to his sadistic ways and yet failing to torture him properly as he desires, the way he claims Anjo would hurt him effectively. Karen is not completely into receiving pain as much as she may have thought herself, which is revealed in a later scene involving Ichi.
Kakihara has two assistants, Jiro and Saburo, twins who owe their complete devotion to Kakihara as they follow him around Japan to help find not only Anjo through torturing more people, but also in search of Ichi themselves to help feed Kakihara's pain addiction. Kakihara ultimately believes that Ichi can be a good match for him, hoping he can give him the kind of pain he anticipates. But knowing the actual, pathetic Ichi as an audience, we know it can become nothing more than a let down for Kakihara. Besides, the only means Ichi has of killing is a full-body suit with boots which contain blades at the heels.
Jijii is the one character who doesn't seem to be either a sadist or a masochist, more interested in simply seeing disorder and anarchy as opposed to actually hurting himself or anyone.
The whole world in which Ichi the Killer takes place is presented as an almost comically torturous one, with maybe one or two actually comedic moments shown throughout the whole thing. Everyone is interested in hurting each other or themselves, pimps and prostitutes included, and so hardly any character is likable, but that makes it all the more intriguing. Kakihara is a naïve and yet sadistically intelligent man, and he becomes an almost charming and simultaneously terrifying force to meet.
Takashi seems to love gore as well, and he doesn't hold back in this film at all. A few of the CGI effects may seem dated by today's standards, but then again the film is not meant to be seen as a realistic depiction of violence when it uses the most grotesque effects. And when the title of a film rises in a puddle of male bodily fluid (you'd really have to watch), you know the film is taking you into a messed up place you might want to at times turn back from but can't.
The acting in this film is really enjoyable, the tension is there, and the film is really just a perfect ride if you have an iron stomach and you're in the mood for a bizarre crime story. There aren't many people I can actually recommend this film to, but it's an artistically stimulating film and it manages to hold my attention every time I watch it. It's one of those films that comes across as more of an underground guilty pleasure, but it seems like nearly anything by Miike is guaranteed to be so. At the film's premiere, each viewer received a vomit bag, so the film knows what it is. It's no wonder a director like Eli Roth found inspiration in Miike's effects and elements of horror, even if Roth comes across as a juvenile film goer himself.
Ichi the Killer may not ever be—or could have been—able to win any classy film awards, but it stands as a deeper film than what may seem superficially violent, and I always manage to pick out a little something, everything from an element of interpretation to scenery, each time I view it. The film is a little gem in foreign films and there is nothing really more it needs to be.