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.