(Revisionist) Movie Review : Ichi the Killer (2001)
* This review contains spoilers *
Legendary Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike has 104 directing credits to his name, but many people still remember him today for his surreal, hyperviolent gangster movie Ichi the Killer. It was extremely controversial when it came out and quickly gained a reputation for being the most violent thing ever filmed. Obviously, people went nuts over it and out of their way to catch a screening. I have a quite fond memory of it myself, but was it that extreme and shocking? Was it worth remembering at all? I watched it again to try and answer these questions.
And truth is, I might’ve underestimated Ichi the Killer a little bit.
Adapted from a manga by Hideo Yamamoto, Ichi the Killer tells the story of a young, disturbed and sexually tormented man with otherworldly karate skills named Ichi (Nao Omori), who is manipulated by a man named Jijii (Shin’ya Tsukamoto) into killing mobsters. In his way is Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano), a fierce (and sadomasochistic) gang enforcer trying to figure out what happened to his boss who dished pain in an exquisite manner. They’re weirdoes who are made for each other. Kakihara is the villain Ichi needs to kill to redeem himself of past failures and Ichi’s the the destructive force that promises Kakihara a nirvana of suffering.
Here are three reasons why I believe Ichi the Killer is still underrated today, but definitely not for everyone:
It makes an aggressively nihilistic point
This movie features HEAVY violence against women. I didn’t remember how bad it was until I rewatched it this week and it’s really brutal and misogynistic. But it’s not gleeful and pointless. Takashi Miike is trying to tell something here: male savior fantasies are just as misogynistic and dehumanizing are straight out violence. Or almost. They’re about control and possession too.
It’s best illustrated in a scene where Ichi saves a prostitute from being beaten and raped by her pimp only to tell her: “Don’t worry, I will beat you up from now on.” The scene finishes with Ichi slicing the prostitute’s throat with his boot knife. Even if he means well, he’s still prey to his powerful sexual impulses and manages to help no one, but himself. It’s intense and sometimes even vile, but it makes its point coherently.
A tale of two (deviant) sexualities
The most interesting aspect of Ichi the Killer is (I believe) that Ichi is presented to be the protagonist, but he isn’t. He’s the antagonist and Kakihara is the protagonist. I wouldn’t call him a hero, but he’s the character you end up rooting for. Both men are defined by their deviant sexualities, but what makes Kakihara more likable than his counterpart is that he’s mastered it. He’s in control of who he is.
Kakihara’s desires aren’t reasonable: he wants Ichi to kill him, which he looks forward to be the most erotic moment of his life. But it’s a desire that doesn’t hurt other people. On the other side, Ichi is looking for revenge on bullies who raped a girl in front of him. A memory that was implanted in his brain by Jijii and that can’t ever be fulfilled. It only promises to lead him down a spiral of violence and ultimately kill people that don’t deserve it.
Takashi Miike inverts movie stereotypes to confront his audience to hypocritical shortcuts they often entail. I believe his ultimate point is to say that every moral claim is ultimately suspicious and that humans in general tend to seek whatever will cause them pleasure, first and foremost. Sure, it’s dark as hell. But it works because of Kakihara’s cartoonish, over-the-top sadomasochistic longings.
It’s pleasantly surreal
Borderline Lynchian, really. Part of what makes Ichi the Killer bearable and not insufferably nihilistic is its cartoonish, inexplicable aesthetics. So many things happen in the movie for the sake of its own weirdness: a man is stuffed into a broken television set during an interrogation, Jijii reveals a body-builder physique (and a bodybuilder thong) during a confrontation, which is never ever brought up again, Kakihara’s body modifications allow him to swallow punches, etc.
Ichi the Killer is not happening in a setting that even closely resembles to our reality. That’s part of its appeal. It’s unpredictable and visually stunning in its own hyperviolent way.
There you have it. Ichi the Killer is every bit as shocking and controversial as I remembered it to be. It’s definitely something distributors would shy away from in 2019 and knowing how divided and radicalized our culture has become, it might not be a bad thing. But what I missed the first couple times is that Ichi the Killer really has something to say. It’s not fucked up for the sake of being fucked up alone. It has a dark and nihilistic point to make and it makes it pretty well. It deserves to be remembered, but it also deserves every “extreme” and “handle with care” labels you can put on it.