Ichi the Killer (2001)

First published by Movie Gazette

Based on a popular Japanese comicbook by Yamamoto Hideo, Miike Takashi’s controversial Ichi the Killer (Koroshiya 1, or Killer 1) translates perfectly all the manga’s energy, anarchy and illogic into the kinetic language of film.

When yakuza boss Anjo goes missing with 300 million yen, his loyal lieutenant Kakihara (Asano Tadanobu) – a grinning fetishist who blows cigarette smoke out of the scars in his cheeks – will stop at nothing to find him, not least because Anjo has been the only one capable of satisfying Kakihara’s penchant for masochism. Kakihara’s brutal inquiry into the circumstances of Anjo’s disapppearance puts him on the bloody scent of Ichi (Omori Nao), a shy, mixed-up cry-baby who is being manipulated by the mysterious mesmerist Jiji (played, appropriately, by film director Tsukamoto Shinya) into slicing and dicing his way through Anjo’s gang in the belief that he is taking vengeance on bullies who tormented him as a child. As the corpses pile up, Kakihara and Ichi circle ever closer to one another, little realising that their insatiable drives are destined to be tragically frustrated.

Ichi the Killer sets out its psychosexual stall early, with the title emerging from the milky pool of a voyeur’s ejaculate – and indeed, even by Miike’s standards of excess, this film is not for the faint-hearted, with its frequent scenes of torture, dismemberment, rape and body horror. Yet tempting as it is to dismiss Ichi the Killer as little more than a stylish compendium of ultraviolent sensationalism made with Miike’s characteristic verve (not that there is anything wrong with that), this would be to ignore the film’s high level of sophistication and the incredible intellectual demands which it makes on viewers. For a start, one must work overtime just to follow the story, with its huge cast of carefully realised characters, its elliptical editing, complicated flashbacks, parallel scenes and its frequent shifts into sequences of dream or fantasy (it can even be argued that the entire film is one man’s doomed revenge fantasy) – and the enigmatic final images force viewers to reassess drastically everything that has preceded.

A subtle intelligence is also brought to bear on the scenes of violence, as Miike unsettles his viewers by not just showing abject brutality, but brutality that is being watched by a third party – in particular by the sadistic voyeur Ichi, whose arousal at the sight of any aggression offers an uncomfortable reflection of Miike’s own audience. The film dramatises how easily violent acts are learned, imitated, and misdirected, engendering endless cycles of vengeance where real satisfaction becomes impossible and disappointment inevitable. Ultimately Ichi the Killer lays bare the contradictions in Japanese society’s rigid hierarchies of power, where it is necessary for the bullied and the humiliated to humiliate and bully others in order to become number one, and once you have reached the top, the only way is down.

Ichi the Killer is a bizarre sado-masochistic love story, an unnerving excursion into criminal and sexual extremes, and a comicbook explosion of lurid colours and freakish characters – but most of all, it is a furious, frenetic and at times very funny piece of bravura filmmaking, with outstanding performances, spectacular setpieces, dizzying moodswings, a killer soundtrack, and a mindbending conclusion.

Guaranteed to amaze, shock, disgust and intrigue in equal measure, Ichi the Killer is one of the most striking films ever made. Unforgettable.

Anton Bitel

 Anton Bitel