Ichi the Killer

5 out of 5

Directed by: Takashi Miike

No other film looks or watches like Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer.  Even amongst the director’s filmography – with which I’m comfortable saying I’m familiar, having viewed a significant amount of his (English-subtitled available…) movies from across his active eras – the look and feel of the film is particular.  Miike certainly has several standouts from his oeuvre, movies I’d easily consider masterpieces, and Ichi ranks as one of those.  It’s especially interesting viewing it well beyond the controversy in which it emerged – I was admittedly introduced to the director during that era in which he sprang to gonzo prominence with this, Audition, and Visitor Q – as it’s even more clear now how thematically and tonally linked this is with other Takashi movies; and visually: even a tame entry (though not to suggest every movie he’s made) can have a sudden spot of perverse humor or visual discomfort.

Tom Mes, in his Agitator book on Miike, of course has an excellent take on the film, speaking in detail on how the director is playing with the viewers tastes for violence, but does so somewhat without judgement.  I’m agreed on that, but I think even without an in depth analysis, the way the movie mixes two ultimate statements on pain and pleasure – death and sex – is seen when we’re introduced to the violent beating of a prostitute by her pimp, spied upon by Ichi (Nao Omori), who leaves a puddle of ejaculate behind, from which the title of the movie rises.  So what are you watching, and why are you watching it?  And before you have a chance to figure that out, we cut to a comical scene of cartoon bloodshed, walls and floors smeared with viscera; Ichi’s cleanup crew slipping and sliding in it.

Ichi is, indeed, a killer; an assassin, manipulated by Jijii (Shinya Tsukamoto) to take apart the Anjo gang, man by man.  Jijii prays on Ichi’s simple-mindedness and confusions, making him repeatedly recall a childhood incident in which he witnessed a girl being raped by the bullies who were previously assaulting him, and convincing him that the various Anjo enforcers are just, essentially, more bullies.  Suited up in something akin to a superhero uniform, Ichi is unleashed, killing in the most outlandish way possible.  This ends up juxtaposing Anjo member Kakihara’s (Tadanobu Asano) methods, whose hefty facial scarring and excess piercings are indicative of his joy for torture, but also the interesting relationship he had with Anjo, only able to “feel” when taking beatings from his boss.

So the ingredients are there, whether you want to go in for a shot by shot debate on the film’s take on sadism and misogyny or just squirm when a funny set piece is immediately followed by a grisly one, but both shot and scored (by Karera Musication, a Boredoms splinter group) with the same sort of intensity so there are no “clues” as to how you’re supposed to feel about things.  Following on this is a very common Miike theme of misplacement, and legacies: every character in the film doesn’t seem motivated by their own desires, but rather the want to please another, or to be led by another.  Ichi is plagued by memories, which may be false; sons inherit from their fathers.  And there’s a puppeteer in Jijii, who Mes likens to Miike; we never know his true intentions throughout the film except to seemingly completely dismantle the tools of destruction embodied by the Anjo clan.

The ending of the movie would seem to have a pretty straight forward interpretation, driving a lot of this home, but I also think there are some alternate takes that match with Miike’s tendency to do last minute reversals in his movies: you’ve just watched something, you have a comfortable take on it, and then the last shot makes you question everything you just saw.

Whatever you’re take, there is no experience quite like Ichi the Killer.