Review: Ichi the Killer (2001)

Directed by:
Cast: , , ,

Distributed in Australia by:

Remember the old architect sketch from Monty Python? A group of Masons offer a tender for an apartment building, and one of the architects presents designs for a slaughterhouse, justifying it thus: “This is not just a slaughterhouse. There’s no blood caked on the walls and flesh flying out of the windows incommoding passers-by with this one!”

That is so, so, not Ichi The Killer. There is blood caked on the walls. And the only reason there’s no flesh flying out of the windows incommoding passers-by is that the windows are closed. Many of the scenes in this film closely resemble a slaughterhouse, except that the things being slaughtered are not cattle but yakuza. Well, mostly yakuza.

This film is very aptly-named. Ichi The Killer. Could just as easily have been Ichi The Dismemberer. Ichi The Energetic Redecorator In Tones Of Crimson. Ichi The Revealer Of Hitherto Undiscovered Body Parts That Are Purple And Go “Gloop”. Not for Ichi the silent stiletto in the ribs on a crowded street: this boy lays about with frenzied abandon, splashing floor, walls, ceiling, and fish tanks with bits of yakuza. Well, mostly yakuza. He has some serious issues, as they say in the pop-culture world. He’s not the most well-adjusted of men.

But this film isn’t just about Ichi. There’s also Kakihara (Asano Tadanobu), a yakuza lieutenant dressed in the very flashest of Shinjuku flash, a paragon of sharp mens’ fashion, and a devoted masochist. He’s hunting for his boss so diligently because his boss was a great beater. Yep, you read it right. Kakihara and Boss Anjo had a very personal relationship: Anjo did the beating and Kakihara enjoyed it. So Kakihara is on the trail of our tragically homicidal man-child Ichi, who’s played with wide-eyed, trembling intensity by Ohmori Nao. Kakihara’s purple suits and lace shirts tread the streets in search of Ichi’s basic black ensemble, which would be chic except for it being rubber. Skin-tight rubber. “Lord t’underin’ Jaysus!”, as a friend of mine would say. Can it get any weirder?

Well yes, it can. Lots. Great big gobs of weird, with extra dollops of weird on top and chocolate weird icing. Kakihara has no compunction about torture as a method of information extraction, as we see more than once. And the two rogue cops that he enlists in his quest, twins with odd habits, also like a bit of recreational torture. Then there’s Sabu, as a cop-turned-yakuza, loping about with an apologetic expression, director Miike popping up for a cameo (as a yakuza, naturally), and several other assorted deviants.

This is one seriously violent film. And on a critical note, some of that violence (yes, only some) is seriously disturbing. It’s been widely criticised for its extreme violence towards women, although, to be fair to Miike, both genders cop a rough time. But despite that extreme violence, it must also be said that this film is not bad. Both lead actors carry their difficult roles well. Asano, as the even-tempered but violence-prone Kakihara, swaggers through the Shinjuku underworld with a loose-limbed grace, bringing terror to friend and foe alike. Ohmori, playing the child-like and disturbed Ichi, lets loose and goes at this extreme character with everything he’s got. Which is plenty, as you’ll see. But I don’t want to spoil the surprise.

But the film’s not all bad. In fact, it’s quite good, despite the brutality. Miike rubs our noses in our cinematic taste for violence, making it quite clear that the uber-cool posturing of cinema semi-toughs leads to somewhere we don’t want to go. The cinematography is generally good, with some scenes in particular standing out: the rooftop fight scene is particularly stunning, especially with the Ishii-Sogo-like soundtrack. The moody Shinjuku interiors look appropriately claustrophobic, while the occasional shot of Kakihara leading his merry band through the streets induces an urge to run as far and as fast as you can to escape the tide of revenge-seeking yakuza.

In one way, you could see this film as a long lead-in to the perfect marriage. Not in any sense a marriage of minds, rather this is the ultimate masochist seeking, and finding, the ultimate sadist. The excitement with which Kakihara anticipates meeting Ichi is touching, almost naive, which is odd considering the man’s looking forward to being sliced and diced. And Ichi’s mild, submissive nature, like a puppy desperate to be loved, doesn’t stop him from cutting people into small pieces. Nor does it stop him from guilty, furtive enjoyment, as you’ll discover from the title sequence. There is very little about this film that won’t challenge or disturb you in some way.

This uncut version also contains some scenes that help define crucial sub-plots. These scenes were cut from the edited version, for reasons unknown, possibly because the censors were getting punchy from all that blood. But the scenes are good, and they make sense of later scenes that otherwise are just confusing.

Just a word on the extras. The “Behind The Scenes” footage mainly consists of “How they did this nasty scene” moments, which feel as though they should have freak show captions: “SEE! – the yakuza hanging by his skin! HEAR! – the gristly sound as Kakihara cuts off his tongue! WINCE! – at the nipple scene!”

Ichi The Killer is an extreme film. Don’t watch it, or even think about it, unless you have a very strong stomach.

7.5 lime green silk scarves out of 10.
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