THE GEISHA OF GORE REVIEWS
ICHI THE KILLER
by Colleen Wanglund
Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Takashi Miike. For me he’s right up there with Hitchcock, Leone, Kurosawa, and Kubrick—easily one of the greatest directors ever—a cinema genius. At fifty years old, Miike has directed over seventy films covering everything from family-friendly movies such as THE GREAT YOKAI WAR (2005) to the violent yakuza (Japanese gangster) film DEAD OR ALIVE (1999). He’s even tried his hand at westerns with SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO (2007) and horror with his short “BOX” in THREE….EXTREMES (2004), ONE MISSED CALL (2003) and AUDITION (1999). In 2005 Miike was invited to direct an episode of MASTERS OF HORROR, a series of hour-long shows for the Showtime cable channel, each done by a different director and supposedly free of restrictions. Miike’s installment, entitled IMPRINT, was deemed so controversial that it has yet to air in the United States. Thankfully it was released to video so it can be seen here….and if you haven’t seen it yet, what the hell are you waiting for?!? Many of Takashi Miike’s films have become known for their depictions of extreme violence and odd sexual behavior, and this has led to his almost cult-like following in the West.
One of Miike’s most controversial films is 2001’s ICHI THE KILLER. It’s sadomasochistic, misogynistic, and bloody as hell—and that’s why I love it so much. Based on a manga by Hideo Yamamoto, ICHI tells the story of a yakuza clan whose boss, Anjo, has gone missing along with 300 million yen (equal to about 3.75 million U.S. dollars) and his girlfriend. Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano), Anjo’s right-hand-man, will stop at nothing to find Anjo and the missing money. Of course Anjo and his girlfriend are dead—his murder is among the opening scenes. Anjo’s murder is an extremely bloody affair, committed by a strange man in a suit with the number 1 emblazoned on the back (Ichi in Japanese for the number one). The apartment is covered in blood—floor, walls and ceiling—and one of the clean-up crew takes a tumble in a steaming pile of intestines. When Kakihara goes to the apartment looking for clues, it’s spotless—the blood and bodies have been removed along with the money. As word gets around to the other families, an informant shows up claiming that a man named Suzuki from a rival family was bragging that he was responsible for Anjo’s disappearance. That informant is Jijii, an outcast from the yakuza played brilliantly by Shinya Tsukamoto (director of the TETSUO trilogy). Among the families there exists an agreement that basically sets up boundaries so everyone make can make money, although that doesn’t mean spats don’t break out from time to time. Kakihara sends his men to get Suzuki and in a scene that even I found hard to watch, Kakihara hangs the man from the ceiling by hooks through Suzuki’s skin. To add to the torture, when Kakihara doesn’t get the answers he’s looking for, he douses the man in hot oil that he had just used to make shrimp tempura. I did mention sadomasochism, right? Suzuki’s boss comes to see what’s happening, but when he’s told of the info they got from Jijii—surprise, surprise—Jijii is gone. Upon learning he made a mistake, Kakihara goes to Suzuki’s boss to formally beg forgiveness. This is another very disturbing scene but I won’t spoil it. I want you to be just as uncomfortable watching it as I was.
Meanwhile we are introduced to Ichi played by Nao Omori. Ichi is a very meek individual who may also be a bit slow mentally, although nothing is ever really said about it. Ichi has fallen in with Jijii, Ryo and Inoue—two more yakuza outcasts who appear to be working with Ichi as his clean-up crew. Appearances are deceiving and Ichi is in fact being manipulated by Jijii. When pushed to his limit, Ichi dons his black costume with the number 1 on the back and blades in the heels of his shoes and basically tears people apart. When Ichi was in school he had witnessed the gang rape of a female student and he didn’t help her. Jijii uses this to get Ichi to kill the yakuza members that he wants dead. Just how he actually manipulates Ichi is quite interesting. After one bloody attack on Anjo’s clan, Kakihara finds one man still alive and questions him on what happened. Another of Anjo’s girlfriends, Karen, shows up and seems to revel in the pain she and Kakihara inflict on the man before he dies. He decides he wants Karen to be his girl but quickly loses interest when she isn’t capable of inflicting pain on Kakihara. After this latest attack on the clan, Kakihara enlists the help of a couple of police detectives—a set of brothers—to help him find Ichi. They find Ryo and kidnap both him and his girlfriend. To get Ryo to talk they torture his girlfriend in a rather gruesome manner. Again, it’s difficult to watch. They ultimately find out about Ichi and set out to find him. With the help of one of Anjo’s bodyguards, a disgraced cop named Kaneko, Kakihara finds Ichi and the final showdown on a building rooftop is bizarre, to say the least.
ICHI THE KILLER is one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s definitely one of Miike’s masterpieces. There is so much going on, but it’s not too much that it gets confusing. It’s definitely a wild ride and you know it from the title sequence using a particular body fluid—and it isn’t blood. I must point out that the scarred man on the movie poster/DVD cover is NOT Ichi. So many people seem to think it’s him but it is in fact Kakihara, because the movie is about him as much as it is about Ichi. It’s also about Jijii and his obsessive need to wipe out this particular yakuza clan. Kakihara is a man who feels nothing. He needs to feel pain in order to feel human. There is a joke made about Kakihara maybe being “in love” with Anjo, but the fact is he needs the pain that Anjo inflicted on him. There’s a scene where Kakihara is chained up in a room and he is instructing Karen on how to inflict the most pain, but she can’t quite do it and he becomes extremely disappointed in her. It’s almost sad to see as he changes his mind about Karen being his girlfriend. In the manga version, there is an almost supernatural element to Kakihara, with his ability to absorb the pain and use it for power. Miike has quite effectively changed that to a much more psychological element. Kakihara’s quest to find Ichi is not so much about revenge for his boss’s murder, but his almost suicidal need for Ichi to inflict the ultimate pain on him.
Another element to the movie that I find interesting is the lack of fight scenes. There is a lot of blood spilled at the hands of Ichi, but we don’t ever actually see it happen. We only see the aftermath of Ichi’s work and it’s still quite gruesome. The blood sprays but the action itself is rarely seen. However, as I’ve already mentioned, there are some scenes in ICHI that are very difficult to watch; not so much for the gore but for the kind of pain you can practically feel yourself. It really is enough to make you squirm…and I did. There is also a depth to the characters in ICHI that you wouldn’t necessarily expect in a horror/yakuza film. Besides Kakihara’s obsession with feeling pain, there is Jijii’s obsession with taking down Anjo’s clan—killing them all—and how he is able to manipulate Ichi to do what he wants. Then of course there is Ichi himself and what drives his compulsion to kill the way he does. You will be asking yourself “How can this meek little man turn into such a cold-blooded killer?” There’s another story going on with the bodyguard Kaneko and his son Takeshi. Kaneko is a disgraced cop who was given a chance to earn some money by Anjo. His wife left him and Takeshi is afraid Kaneko will also leave. Kaneko is very loyal to Anjo, but must try to balance that loyalty with caring for his son. Kaneko ultimately plays a major role in finding Ichi.
My DVD of ICHI THE KILLER comes with two hours of bonus material, including the making of ICHI, commentary with Takashi Miike and manga writer Hideo Yamamoto, and the original movie trailer. There is also a featurette called “The Cult of Ichi,” which includes interviews with author Jack Ketchum, actress Debbie Rochon and Tony Timpone, publisher of FANGORIA magazine. My daughter bought the DVD for me while at an anime convention, and it’s one of my favorite gifts from her. She knows what her mama likes. This is, in my opinion, a must-have movie for any fans of horror or the bizarre. For anyone who may be interested, you can read the manga that inspired the movie online for free by going here. It is actually more graphic and bloody than the movie.
© Copyright 2010 by Colleen Wanglund