The Review: Ichi the Killer is yet another in the long line of films that I’ve been meaning to review for the longest, but have usually lost the courage to review out of fear of disappointment. Well, disappointment and the fact that most of the films that really struck a nerve in me have been reviewed countless times on countless websites out there. By the time it comes to me getting my thoughts down on paper I begin to question the point, seeing that there will no doubt be much better reviews written detailing the exact same feelings, but I guess you have to reach a point where you just say screw it. The review may turn out crappy but at least I’ll have marked my territory. That’s what I’m doing with this Ichi review, marking my territory. I love Ichi the Killer, no film in the past five to ten years has made such an impact on the way I look at cinema I don’t believe. Ichi has actually grown into part of who I am. Strange to say about any film I’m sure, much less one so controversial. Since the film is as controversial as it is, I guess it’s only fair that I tackle that subject head on. I feel as if I’m at a disadvantage to judge the film for all audiences since my tolerance for extreme violence is probably going to be a little higher than some who might read this. I’m not tooting my own horn or anything like that, if you want to see me flee the room throw on some real life crap like Banned From Television or something, I can’t handle the real stuff, but when it comes to movie violence I’ve built up quite a high threshold. For instance, I heard a lot of hype coming out about the French film Irreversible, like people walking out of theaters shocked and vomiting but when I actually watched the film I was frustrated and angered at the fact that I had wasted my time waiting for the violence to kick in. I still despise that film to this day for disappointing me so much, and yes I even hold a grudge against Halloween III for not having Michael Myers. The point is, I can’t accurately judge what is going to disturb most audiences and I don’t want the wrong people walking in thinking it’s a cornucopia of gore and madness when it assuredly isn’t. There’s a lot of torture in the film and there are definitely moments that even made me feel quite a bit uncomfortable, but nothing that ever made me turn my head or wince. Not like in Miike’s Audition where I was just thrown back in my chair being visually assaulted. One viable complaint I could imagine would be some of the rape scenes and beatings given to women, so if that’s a sensitive area you might want to watch with someone else or just be leary of the film. The gore in the film is fairly plentiful, but nothing on the level of Dead-Alive (Braindead) or something like that. A decent amount of the on screen mayhem is actually cgi, and a number of it is done in a humorous way. The darkest of dark humor maybe, but some things I couldn’t help but smile at. Of course this is all just the way I feel about the violence, for some it might be too much, but for those who have sat through quite a few exploitation flicks in there time don’t be afraid that you can’t handle something like this. You might just walk away disappointed.
I don’t mean to pay so much attention to the violence because that’s not the only reason to watch the film, but I thought I may as well get that stuff out of the way. For those who haven’t seen the film, they might walk away shocked to find that Ichi is a lot deeper than some like to give it credit for. I don’t pretend to understand all of the underlying subtext in Ichi, just as I don’t pretend to understand all of David Lynch’s work, but I recognize the thought and work put into it. Something I bet a lot would dismiss, even Miike tries to shrug off any pretensions when it comes to his work, but at the heart of Ichi there’s a battle raging. A battle of control, which is what the film is really all about. Sado Masochism is only a shell for what the film is really about, which is the controlling of other people. Who has the power? Who controls who? It’s what makes the film revolve. The character of Jiji is the example, he controls everyone and everything, but how far does his control go and how long will it last? I don’t want to get all pretentious and snobby as I know I sound, but these are the questions that burn in my head whenever I sit down to watch Takashi Miike’s masterpiece. While preparing to review the film I watched it for my fifth or so time, and with each viewing I seem to get closer and closer to the truth. At the moment, I think I understand the ending of the film in it’s most basic forms but it’s still just a bit above my head. I can’t go into deatail about it all because I would break my own oath of no spoilers, but for those watching it, all I can say is to watch it frame by frame and pay attention to the small details. Then again I question giving any advice out, because do I even know how close I am to the truth of the film? I can’t really say, but I do know that each time I watch it I learn more and maybe some day the repeat viewings will pay off completely. It’s part of why I have such a great passion for the film. It takes many of the aspects I love of surrealist cinema and churns out something freakish, profound and generously entertaining. The film bounces around in so many different ways, and we’re just talking about the plot alone, which is surprisingly complex. Symbolism is abound and the plot hangs around dozens of miniscule little sequences throughout the film, things people say on the telephone might explain the actions of another character in the next scene. Good subtitles are a must needless to say. This last viewing of the film I just payed most of my attention to Jiji, reading his dialogue and studying his character to learn more about what is happening. It really does take paying some close attention to catch many of his actions, because he truly does make the world in which the characters live, go around. His character is the centerpiece of everything and this isn’t even a secret of the film. No spoilers, it’s clear from the beginning of the film. His character is the master and everyone is the puppet, but what is interesting is seeing Ichi not wanting to work as the pawn in his game. As Kahkihara says later in the film “You are chaos”. Ichi is the sadist at heart who doesn’t feel comfortable with his own actions, a killer who doesn’t enjoy killing. Kahkihara is both the most interesting character in the film and the character who has the most simple of motivations; he is the ultra masochist. He wants pain and that is all. He admires Ichi for being the greatest sadist, but Ichi only kills because of his sense of revenge. Everything revolves in a circle, and to those who dismiss the film as nothing but gore with no brain, I would ask you to watch again and pay closer attention to character and detail.
I find it hard to speak of Ichi the Killer without bringing up the insane amount of visual and directorial style on display. Takashi Miike is like a kid in a candy store. He delivers all the visual style one might expect, but takes the viewer into overdose mode. One of my favorite shots in the film that will always remain in my mind is where the camera flies through about three city blocks, I would imagine in the front end of a car with the fram rate on fast forward, until it stops and goes into closeup of a character’s mouth. After this the scene goes into one long take where Karen (Paulyn Sun) takes Kahkihara on a trip to a local heroin dealer. They travel up a flight of stairs and break into the woman’s apartment. This whole sequence burns vividly in my mind as something of a masterwork, it could be the crazy handheld work or it could be the amazing rock soundtrack blaring over most of Paulyn Sun’s English dialogue, but without doing much of anything this segment of the film is one of the brightest moments of the film. There are about one hundred other brilliant visuals and set pieces throughout the film to blow your mind as well. Pretty much anything even associated with the character Kahkihara is bound to knock your boots off, especially his little desk area made of nothing but red lighting, even though the rest of the room isn’t lit with anything remotely red. Like an island inferno somewhere in a Yakuza office. It doesn’t get a lot of air time but it’s just one of the things that makes you go ‘huh’ while watching things transpire. Miike always keeps his camera roaming throughout the film and never lets his audience catch a breath of air. Unlike his Dead or Alive series, there are no Kitano-esque moments of reflection. The film carries you from one scene to the next and you had best be prepared for it. A roller coaster of emotions. You can go from laughing as in the scene where Kahkihara forces one of his gangster lackeys (who wanted to leave the group because of fear of a gang war) to walk with a board nailed through his shoe. Or you can be made to feel uncomfortable as shown in the highly talked about scene where Kahkihara tortures a man by hooking his skin to chains from the roof and then pouring scalding oil over his back. The comedy doesn’t break the more harsh moments as much as you might see in an American film or even in some Japanese films really, you get the idea that Miike wanted the film to be intense but always fun. Whether this is your type of fun is a personal opinion, I still feel I get most of what he wanted to present. Of course I couldn’t review the film without going over the acting at least a little bit. Tadanobu Asano has been a favorite actor of mine ever since I was fortunate to watch Electric Dragon 80,000 V., but Ichi the Killer and the character of Kahkihara (whom I have mentioned about a dozen times in this review) really cemented himself as one of my favorite actors ever. Perhaps my favorite actor out there as of this moment. I’ve only seen four or so of his films, but everytime I catch one of his movies he puts out this persona of the coolest person ever to exist. He’s got the swagger of James Dean and the talent to boot. He doesn’t show a ton of emotion, I’ll admit that readily, but his screen prescence rivals Chow Yun-Fat or Bruce Campbell. In Ichi, he’s absolutely dynamic. A laid back performance but also a driven and lively one. He is as giddy as a child in one scene and then taking extreme delight in torturing someone in the next. He deserves mainstream notariety with the film, but being a cult phenomena would be just as well. Asano isn’t the only one on top of his game though, pretty much everyone involved gives their all. Nao Omori is an unknown to me (I think he stars in the live adaption of Perfect Blue), but I absolutely love him in the film as Ichi, the homocidal crybaby. There’s a beautiful character ark behind Ichi and Nao Omori brings it out ten fold. He could have just made the character a generic soft spoken wimp and let the fact that he’s the greatest killer who ever lived work as a gimmick, but as an actor he does so much more. He makes me realize when watching the film that this isn’t just some cartoonish gore film, this is a tragedy. The character of Ichi should evoke sympathy from the audience already, but just the teary eyes that Nao Omori aims towards the camera reads his whole life story. I don’t mean to overhype the performances and I’m confident others will assume everyone is over the top and show no attachment to real life, but I’m just going by the emotions the film wrenches from me. It’s for all of these reasons above that I can’t help but love the film with all I have.
What can I say that hasn’t been made abundantly clear already? I’m obsessed with the film, I love the director and I can never watch the film enough. Are there negative aspects of the film? I’m sure there are, but maybe I’m just not clear headed with the film and carry an obvious bias (but how can it be bias when it’s still simply an opinion?) but I can’t make myself sit around picking apart the negative pieces of the film. I would be hard pressed to find a scene in the film I felt should be cut, and I find it seriously doubtful I could find one I truly disliked. Is that wrong of me? I don’t know, you make the call, but if you haven’t seen the film and you’re at least a little interested, see it now. Find an unedited copy and order it. If you can’t handle the extreme violence, at least you’ll have something to bring up at dinner parties to brag that you seen some weird friggin’ Japanese flick that was mind bendingly bizarre, and if you on the other hand find it too tame and undeserving of it’s reputation, well I warned you. All I can say is ‘see this film’, and what you take from it could be polar opposite of myself. Just please never insult the character Kahkihara, easily the greatest villian of all time, and to deny that is to deny me… which you should never do!