Movies That Matter: Ichi the Killer

I never said that this series would be pretty, did I? I’m sure that someone out there is questioning what kind of person I must be for a movie like Ichi the Killer to be a defining and important part of my growth as a cineaste, which, I suppose, is fair enough to ask even if the answer (hopefully) quells any concerns over my taste level or the state of my psyche. Takashi Miike’s arguably most iconic and immediately recognized movie might not be easy on the stomach, and it doesn’t play nice with any of its characters (much less its audience), but this nasty piece of business nonetheless retains a high ranking in my personal movie history for all of its viscera and graphic depictions of torture and sexual violence.

Ichi the Killer is one of those films, the kind that your parents point-blank forbid you to watch as a young lad or lass by virtue of its objectionable and reprehensible content. (Seriously, you young’ns out there, try selling your parents on the idea of watching a movie with that title and see how far you get.) Of course, I wasn’t even aware of the existence of movies possessing Ichi the Killer‘s brutality quotient until halfway through high school; before then, my concept of cinema’s darkest and most depraved depths revolved around Friday the 13th films, specifically A New Beginning, the first slasher film– and the first of those films– that I ever watched. Feeling pretty badass over my new-found awareness of slasher cinema, it never occurred to me for a moment that movies could get any more grotesque than one in which a man has a lit road flare rammed into his mouth (and a naked babe has ocular surgery performed with gardening shears), so when a friend in high school offered to introduce me to the deranged world of Takashi Miike, I felt pretty confident that I had one-up on him. After all, I reasoned, if I could handle Jason, I could handle this Itchy character.

Boy was I wrong. A New Beginning, Jason Lives, and of course the first two chapters of the iconic slasher franchise…none of them came close to my first experience with Miike. Miike’s a director who, unlike peers such as Takeshi Kitano, completely deserves the reputation he’s earned as a purveyor of shock cinema, the filmmaking equivalent of Alice Cooper or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Oh, sure, Miike’s got some odd gems mixed in his oeuvre that distinguish him as a man interested in more than just bloody disgusting weirdness (try The Bird People In China or Happiness of the Katakuris for starters; the former is especially beautiful and mesmerizing), but he’s a director who aims for the unsettling in each and every single one of his films. There is, of course, a lot more to him than that, but he insists on packaging many of his stories in narrative and plot steeped in details that range from head-scratching to stomach-churning.

Ichi the Killer manages to fit both distinctions between it’s creatively vicious depictions of the human body being broken, married with a number of mindfuck elements stemming from alleged brainwashing and manufactured memories. Miike’s bizarre take on the superhero film involves a deranged young man (the titular “Ichi”, and also the titular “killer”) who, under the thrall of a crotchety and bitter would-be mobster named Jiji with a silver tongue and a talent for manipulating and deceiving, wages a crimson-streaked war against a Yakuza clan led by the sadomasochistic Kakihara. It’s a sordid affair; entrails fly across the screen like so much silly string when Ichi bursts into a room full of foes after being revved up to kill them by Jiji, wreaking a degree of havoc visually reminiscent of an over-zealously operated meat grinder. Conversely Miike plays with our heads by dropping moments so surreal we’re not sure they’re actually happening; Jiji, a bent old man, apparently works out and has the physique of a much younger Mr. Universe type, as he (literally) flexes his muscles in the last act and reduces a Yakuza to nothing more than a pile of snapped bones.

The grue on display here prompts us to ask questions regarding the point Miike is making, but in fact such queries in and of themselves may constitute their own point. If nothing else this immediately bestows a higher value on the film than Friday the 13th films, whose collective purpose I never once questioned. A slasher film, after all, is a slasher film; you watch it for its exploitative merits and, frequently, just leave it at that. But Ichi the Killer is a truly transgressive piece filmmaking, something clearly meant to provoke outrage and thereby inspire discussion and debate of some degree, and it marks not only my first genuine experience with shock cinema but also the first time a vulgar work of art turned out to stand for something aside from cheap, sleazy thrills.

Ichi the Killer could simply be about seeking said cheap thrills and relishing in (or squirming over) the violence at the movie’s core. That would have been no sort of accomplishment, though the film may still have been entertaining in a soulless and unctuous way. That the film manages to balance its less savory side with thoughts on the cyclical nature of revenge  is an accomplishment, though admittedly a strong heart is all but necessary to dedicate oneself to a complete viewing. People who do so should find their resolve rewarded with a rich story told with the kind of hyper, kinetic energy and editing Miike is known for bringing to his pictures.

Ichi the Killer serves as an important landmark for me. I haven’t revisited the film in many years (though I have the DVD in my collection somewhere), but frankly it’s ingrained in my mind after a number of viewings back in high school and, eventually, college; I know it like the back of my hand. (Do with that what you will.) Were I to ever go back to it and find myself on the opposite side of the fence now from where I stood almost a decade ago, I’d still consider Ichi essential to my film education. In its fashion, the movie introduced me to a whole new world of filmmaking I never knew existed prior, in which an amoral touch is lent to harrowing and disconcerting material, trading ethics for shock value. If the sub-genre doesn’t stand among my favorites, my first encounter with it remains a big part of who I am as a cineaste.

7 thoughts on “Movies That Matter: Ichi the Killer

  1. I saw Ichi The Killer at Uni. Let me tell you something… This… is…a….twisted….film. For real. That bit where the blond dude takes a drag of the cigarette and then blows it out THROUGH his cheeks, that is nuts. I must have loved it at the time, being in my Urisukidotchi/Battle Royale/Audition phase, but I don’t have the stomach for that gear now. Nice to see a bit of review-choice diversity going on though, I sometimes struggle to pick which of my DVD collection to review next or even if I should bother and just stick to new releases. I think if I just held my breath and dove right in I would probably come up smelling mostly of roses but I’d definitiely bring a few thorns up with me as well. Part of one of the installments of my student loan went exclusively on Tartan Asia Extreme stuff which was red hot in my player at Uni but they’re gathering dust at the bottom of our cabinet now. Reckon it might be time to blow the dust off them and review them on the blog. I have a long overdue DVD-collection-review project going that I started but never finished. Maybe I’ll get round to finishing it sometime this decade 🙂

    • Yeah, it’s funny how the so many of the movies I went ga-ga over when I was younger now languish in obscurity, long past their entertainment expiration dates. I conjure I’ll end up going back to Ichi someday, but I just don’t have the inclination to for the time being. And yeah, Kakihara’s smoke-blowing moment is pretty frigging great, though there are too many moments in the film that are more twisted for that to really rank.

  2. Stumbled across your blog, and in a world of countless movie-review-blogs yours stood out when I saw reviews for Oldboy and Ichi the Killer. This shockingly violent movie holds a similar place in my mind because it was also my introduction to the realm of extreme shock cinema (mainly asian). Ichi the Killer and Audition both curled my toes and brought bile to the back of my throat when I first saw them in high school, and I have had a special place in my heart for such movies ever since. On a side note, speaking of Miike’s other genres movies like The Happiness of the Katakuris, have you seen Sukiyaki Western Django? Thought it was appropriate considering Tarantino’s own Django is coming out.

    • I actually think I have a review of Sukiyaki around here somewhere. Should come up in a search. But yeah, I liked that one too. I actually like the fact that Miike is stepping outside of his perceived comfort zone of shock cinema to do new things, from Sukiyaki to Hara-Kiri; it shows that he’s got a ton of range as a filmmaker.

      But I’ll always love Ichi. Sounds like your introduction to it was the same as my own, similar at least. I’ve been a fan of his video nasty work since high school, too.

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