Ichi the Killer is Takashi Miike’s 40-somethingth (no, really) film and the only one people seem to talk about other than Audition. Since I liked Audition so much, I figured Ichi would be right up my alley. I knew next to nothing about it going in to it other than it was a Miike flick, so I had a hunch that it was going to be wild to say the least. Ichi the Killer follows a sadomasochistic Yakuza thug named Kakihara as he searches for his missing boss. One thing leads to another, and he discovers his boss and colleagues are being hunted down by a disgustingly violent and relentless killer named Ichi. Being roughly Hellraiser levels into the whole pleasure-pain thing, Kakihara develops a sort of obsession with this legendary killer and begins seeking him out more out of curiosity than to find out what happened to his employer.
Now, this film has a reputation. As it’s aged, Ichi the Killer seems to have been accepted into the realm of absurdist, pitch black comedies, and while there are a couple moments that garner a chuckle, I found myself more often than not just staring with a slight frown at the screen. Not because the movie is bad, but because of the complete lack of levity offered during the majority of it’s violent, violent, violent scenes. The film opens with the beating and raping of a prostitute, and that’s not even the only time it happens in the movie. Puncture wounds, slices and slashes, limb removal, partial degloving, and live burning all make appearances in Ichi the Killer, and while this sounds like the inspiration for the Saw franchise (which I’m sure it was), it’s never portrayed that way. It falls in one of two very different categories: schlock, and shock.
The schlock is goofy violence. It’s played for yuks, as a bloody and visceral punchline to a joke. Sometimes Miike relies on some poor-even-for-2001 CGI or Tarantino-esque blood geysers, but regardless, these displays of violence are so outlandish that the only reaction you can have is to laugh. It doesn’t feel like extremity for transgression’s sake. The long, held shots and over-acting of people frantically dying feel like scenes you’d find in Deathgasm or You’re Next. On the flip side you have the shock, which exists to truly make the audience uncomfortable. There’s the beating and raping scenes that I mentioned above, as well as a couple torture scenes that aren’t particularly fun to watch. While the violence is extreme, it’s played completely straight and in full force with no glitz or glamour. Think second half of Martyrs levels of cold bloodshed. This flip flopping of tone is definitely jarring, and paired with some rather, uhhh, stylized film making could make this a movie that most people wouldn’t enjoy.
I got a definite House of 1000 Corpses vibe (despite House coming out 2 years after this) from Ichi the Killer, and it seems to fly it’s flash unabashedly, much like Mr. Zombie. Ichi the Killer and Takashi Miike proudly throw up their middle fingers to the audience and say “this is me doing my thing, and fuck you if you don’t like it”. This film doesn’t only have rabid violence throughout, but a rather sexually charged plot stringing the bloodbath from scene to scene. Kakihara is constantly looking to be the next Pinhead incarnate, and the titular Ichi is simultaneously aroused and disgusted by the pain he sees and inflicts. The film’s title card rises out of a puddle of semen left by Ichi after he witnesses a rape. This ain’t a movie to watch with grandma. Seeing the first 10 minutes of this movie reminded me of one the the first lines in the impossible-to-read House of Leaves: This is not for you.
Honestly, the only comparisons I can make about Ichi the Killer are to Audition, simply because it also contains a similar general grossness that Miike is known for, and to House of 1000 Corpses for the gonzo grindhouse aesthetic and complete, unwavering standing of it’s stylistic ground. I had a friend show me Ichi the Killer because he knew I was interested in weird movies and I liked gore, but we talked a bit about how this is a movie you have to be careful about recommending to your friends. Not only is the perversion enough to scare most people with goo sense off, but Ichi the Killer is not an accessible movie overall. It runs over 2 hours and throws you head first into the Yakuza crime world, throwing names and hierarchies at you without context. Honestly, it’s a very slow movie for the amount of stuff crammed in to it. There are a hundred moments in Ichi the Killer that warrant the average person turning it off to go watch something else, but if you have the patience and fortitude, it’s definitely worth a watch through to the very end just for the experience.
The message of this film is a little muddled too, I think. Similar to Rob Zombie, all of Miike’s characters are deplorable and without any real redeeming qualities. There’s no one to root for and the values that everyone stands for aren’t generally relatable or nuanced. Kakihara offers the only arc worth digging in to with a simple but effective message that reality will never live up to an obsessive fantasy. I think Ichi the Killer needs to have the camera pulled back on it to see what it has to say, and the only sentiment I can understand from it is “you’re kind of fucked up if you like this”. You can argue it tackles our perception and relationship with film violence and desensitization, but ultimately I think this movie is more style over substance.