DIRECTED BY

Takashi Miike

 

STARRING

Tadanobu Asano
Nao Omori
Shinya Tsukamoto
Alien Sun
Sabu

 

RATED

R

 

RELEASED IN

2001

 

RUNNING TIME

2 Hrs., 8 Mins.

Ichi the Killer October 23, 2020

chi the Killer (2001) is an ouroboros of violence. Its central idea is that violence begets violence (haven’t heard that one), and that, alluring as carnage can sometimes seem, especially when portrayed in fictional entertainment, it’s unequivocally wasteful. Doesn’t matter if the motivation behind it has emotional resonance or a semblance of moral clarity. “But there’ll be no one left to taste the revenge,” one character

Tadanobu Asano in 2001's "Ichi the Killer."

I

replies when another tells him that for now, the one thing he is living for is seeing a certain act of vengeance through. The film, directed by Takashi Miike (1999’s Audition) and adapted by Sakichi Satō from a manga masterminded by Hideo Yamamoto, is set in the yakuza milieu of modern Japan. Narratively it’s labyrinthine to the point of being unfollowable. There are too many characters, too many discordant motivations, too many buckets of blood turned over. (Granted, I don’t think the plot is meant to matter much here — this is a movie that wants us to think about how the images and how those images are presented makes us feel.) Ichi the Killer is centrally about a cold-hearted enforcer named Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano) working tirelessly to track down the title character (Nao Omori): an unsteady, emotionally disturbed assassin on the move who outwardly appears to be a nebbish but, when employed, is freakishly (and grotesquely) effective.

 

When Ichi is commanded to kill someone, he doesn’t do it cleanly, like with a carefully deployed pillow or a nimbly plunged knife. By the end of a visit, a victim's insides will decorate the walls like a collage of framed family portraits. His weapon of choice doubles as the centerpiece of an all-black superhero-style outfit he usually adorns on the job: a bladed boot sharp enough to, if angled right, neatly split someone in two. (It looks a little like an ice skate.) Kakihara is also ruthlessly effective, but he’s in fuller control of his ruthlessness. He’s so disciplined that after a major fuck-up (he tortured a yakuza bigwig with an array of meat hooks and a few heedfully poured cupfuls of boiling water he soon found out was innocent), he sits in front of his bosses, sticks out his pierced and violet-colored tongue, and slowly cuts a fourth of it off with a sword and then offers it like a diamond ring. He considers this a really good apology. When he later gets the wound stitched, he's prideful about it, just as he probably is about the rather cool-looking symmetrical scars that line his face like freeway lanes. 

 

Kakihara and the sought-after Ichi are almost perfectly poled apart — a funhouse image. Where violence seems to consume Ichi (he has no sense of self, and is virtually childlike when not killing), it comparatively galvanizes Kakihara. He looks like a rock star. Sartorially he favors shiny satins and designer blazers; his grunge-long hair has been dyed a couple of shades darker than Billy Idol’s. A successful musician might flashily dress as a way to amplify the dominion they feel as they wield power over the stage and an audience — a costume to communicate majesty. Kakihara is as excited by the violence he inflicts as a musician is by the songs they write. For Kakihara, violence is creative expression. 

 

I hated watching Ichi the Killer. I suspect this is in part what Miike was hoping for, even though the fulsome instances of early-MTV-style transitions and jolting music cues might make it seem as though the viewer were supposed to extract a gross kind of joy out of this all. It's a splatter movie with a message. It pointedly adjoins masculinity to violence and makes both so operatically inextricable that together they form a special kind of hellworld. Ichi the Killer 

repels the twistedly hypnotic pull sometimes engendered when violence is flashily aestheticized enough in the movies. 

 

In the films of gorehounds like Herschell Gordon Lewis or Lucio Fulci (both of whom have been termed “the Godfather of Gore” at some point or another), extreme violence is made a memorable set-piece — something to look forward to. Really, it’s what we paid for. The ubiquity of the violence in Ichi the Killer is designed to have the opposite effect. It doesn't subversively attract; instead, it makes us reconsider why in the movies there tends to be an allure attached to bloodshed when the reality is much grimmer, more nauseating. It's effective in that sense: I confess to experiencing a few moments while watching the film where I thought I would vomit; when I watch a movie from Lewis or Fulci, by contrast, I typically giggle at the overwrought explosions of violence.

 

I appreciate the prospect of there being a kind of “thoughtful” splatter movie, and Miike for directing with an apparent unwillingness to create emptily — generate violent spectacle for violent spectacle’s sake. But at a little over two hours, and with the radical violence so constant, it’s like he’s beating us over the head with his “point.” The too-long running time eventually makes any early-on potency dissolve until it has become an afterthought. It numbs. 

 

For the last 45 minutes or so of the movie, I eagerly awaited its conclusion. Miike belabors his ideas so aggressively that it comes to the film’s detriment. A good piece of cinematic provocation, usually uncomfortable to behold, at least electrifies the viewer — perhaps even awakens something. Feelings might be mixed — are maybe disjointed — but above all a viewer knows when something has done a number on them. Ichi the Killer is like having a conversation with someone who frequently asks, “do you know what I mean?." When we say we do, it's like we're not trusted— like it doesn't matter. There comes a moment where we realize that it might be better for our sake to stop engaging and simply leave the room. C+