REVIEW: 殺し屋1 [Ichi the Killer] [2001]

“Giving pain is a serious business”

Based on a Manga by Hideo Yamamoto, Takashi Miike’s 殺し屋1 [Ichi the Killer] is just as brutally gory as people say. This was my first screening of a Miike work and I’m not quite so sure of how I want to continue delving in. Definitely more style and gratuity than any real desire to tell a story; the film pushes the envelope by allowing its main characters to be complete sadomasochists. These completely depraved souls seem to relish the joy of inflicting pain, mixing torture and violence with sex and lust in the cesspools that are their lives. Again, though, I would think most people would know this going in; no one is going to pick up a DVD with a cut up, bleached blonde Japanese psycho gracing the cover along with the word killer and think it will be a feel-good tale. The promotional material is misleading, however, in the depiction of Tadanobu Asano always with the title superimposed over the calm storm that is his face. I thought it portrayed Ichi himself, wild and disfigured, looking to deal his own brand of enjoyable rage, but in fact it is Kakihara, the Yakuza chief of security out to find his boss’s killer, hunted himself by the man he seeks.

At times Miike utilizes sharp cuts while playing with the frame speed to create a high-octane action flick, even pacing it to the loud music sporadically played. It works as far as getting you settled in for the jarring visuals to follow, but also disorientates in its flashes of past events, sometimes even cutting to moments that don’t necessarily make sense or seem relevant to what just happened. Effective in keeping you on your toes without ever knowing what to expect, the disjointed nature also detracts from being able to really invest in the story and try to wrap your head around it. Starting somewhat straightforwardly, the film begins to feel as though it will just be a highly stylized mystery thriller, watching as this Mafioso family seeks out the kidnapper of their leader. Very soon, however, things get crazier and crazier as the surrealism increases and the campy humor begins to show through. The chaotic feel is always there as the opening scene cuts from the Yakuza bodyguards having fun while their boss is unprotected in the next room to a pimp raping one of his girls while a strange man watches from outside. As quick as the transitions, we find ourselves in a car full of mask-wearing thugs about to clean up after Ichi’s evening. Is it the pimp he killed? Is it the boss, Anjo? Was the pimp the boss? I seriously had no idea until later seeing the pimp again in a scene that seemed a carbon copy of this first one, making me confused again about the timeline being used.

I’d say that about halfway through the movie I finally got a grip on what was happening—at least enough to be able to go with the flow and see how it all played out. Basically, Kakihara is a badass, homicidal psychopath bent on getting revenge for his boss’s disappearance as well as satiating his own bloodlust in the process. You see, Anjo was the one person who could inflict pain and suffering with the kind of pleasure Kakihara enjoyed. There is no fun in getting beat up half-heartedly, he needs to see the abuser truly showing a passion for the violence to him. Asano’s is an unforgettable performance that really makes the movie—his disfigurements only add to his personality and his ability to cut off his tongue, his deft handling of razor-sharp foot-long needles, as well as his fearless attitude make him one of the greatest screen villains that I can think of. It is hard to actually call him a villain since he is on the hunt for a killer, but they are all killers here, even the one man we might be able to deem heroic. A gunman for Anjo and stalwart supporter of Kakihara, if only to be able to find Ichi, Hiroyuki Tanaka’s Kaneko is a former cop turned gangster that stays on to avenge the murder of his boss, the one man that took him in when he lost his police job. Here is a man doing evil for what could be construed as good reasons, but the fact that we see him interact with his son Takeshi is what adds that mystery of compassion we want to believe he contains.

Along with these mobsters is the titular character Ichi, played by Nao Ohmori, a man that is not what you may expect. From all the carnage and blood sprayed everywhere—the murder scenes are almost laughable in the abundance of organs, gore, and sliced off limbs—you’d think this monster is Kakihara to the nth degree. The fact of the matter is that Ichi may be the most complicated and misunderstood of the bunch. Handled by a man name Jijii, (whose one scene showing how he isn’t the weak little rat playing both sides we guessed might be the funniest moment in the film, almost having me believe that perhaps the whole affair was just someone’s dream), Ichi is being manipulated into thinking he had been bullied and abused as a child, using an incident of rape to mix his feelings of arousal with those of absolute malice. He is sent out as a killing machine to rid the world of bullies and clean up the streets of their filth. A sort of demented Batman in his plastic-padded suit with bright yellow “1” on its back, Ichi’s mild-mannered alter-ego gets pushed back like clockwork when angry tears flow from his eyes, turning him into an unstoppable beast of rage, blinded by the red until he realizes what he’s done and can only say “I’m sorry”.

You will start to get interested in the seedy underbelly of Japan as these criminals walk the streets in search of retribution and death, but not necessarily to see a story come to a conclusion. Anjo’s death stops being relevant early on as the film deconstructs into a journey that can only end with Kakihara and Ichi dueling once and for all. The murder case and all the players used as witnesses or torture subjects for information serve this goal alone. We know who orchestrated it all, we know who did the dirty work, so we therefore keep watching to see what kind of insanity Miike will throw our way. Whether stretched skin from hooks or fingers; bodies severed in half or cut into pieces; faces skewered by needles and twisted in agony as an arm gets ripped off; or the laughable muscle-bound faux body of Jijii that uses some pretty impressive superimposing technology to get Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s head on it, Ichi the Killer plays to its audience’s sick sensibilities and enjoyment of the anonymous brutality they are bred to abhor in the real world. Perhaps Miike’s one goal is to show his viewers that no matter how much they cringe at violence on the news, the mere fact they will sit at one of his movies proves they secretly revel in the adrenaline rush of it all.

殺し屋1 [Ichi the Killer] 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

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