I can say without exaggeration that Ichi the Killer is a vile movie. If images of graphic violence have ever scarred you, you should avoid it at all costs. There are people who have legitimate reasons for not being able to stomach this level of imagery, and then there are people who simply dislike it. That’s fine. To be clear, you’re not supposed to like it, which seems to be lost on many of its most vocal critics.
Despite multiple recommendations, I initially avoided Ichi the Killer because I assumed the violence was going to be all style and no substance. I never understood the popularity of The Boondock Saints, which seemed utterly forced to me. Crucify me if you must, but it’s high up on the list of reasons I disliked so many genre films from the late 90s and early 2000s. I assumed Takashi Miike was a Japanese Troy Duffy because so many of the people who recommended Ichi the Killer were fans of Saints.
In other words, my expectations led me terribly astray. Hey, I’m only human. I try my hardest not to pre-judge movies, but sometimes it can’t be avoided when there are millions of them to choose from.
Thankfully, I quickly discovered Miike’s Audition and fell head over heels in love with it. I think that movie is best described as beautifully horrendous. Or horrendously beautiful, take your pick. I’ll probably watch it again soon as I continue to thread my way through Miike’s overwhelming filmography.
The special quality that drew me into Audition is hyper-realized in Ichi the Killer. The opening scene depicts the brutal rape of a prostitute. Meanwhile Ichi, the hapless hero, is shown masturbating as he peers through the window, watching the gruesome scene unfold. We later learn Ichi was traumatized by witnessing the rape of a classmate when he was in high school. The event had a very unfortunate effect on him, which isn’t sugarcoated in the least. In some ways Ichi is just as monstrous as the film’s villain, which makes it hard to like him at times. Maybe you’re not supposed to like him, but you should (and probably will) pity him nonetheless.
Although the story revolves around Ichi, Miike mostly focuses on Kakihara, a sadomasochistic gangster whose mentor has disappeared. What the audience already knows is the missing crime boss is dead, but Kakihara assumes leadership of the gang and launches a twisted inquisition to track him down. Kakihara has scars reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s Joker (I’d be willing to bet that wasn’t accidental on Christopher Nolan’s part), only his are so deep he has to keep them pinned shut with facial piercings. And whenever he has a cigarette, he exhales the smoke from the sides of his face.
Like Ichi, Kakihara is also a victim of untold abuse, which he suffered at the hands of the very man he’s risking everything to rescue. In an attempt to assuage his sense of loss, he has a potential love interest chain him up and beat the shit out of him, but it doesn’t do the trick. He needs more. While interrogating members of other gangs, he employs needles, hooks, and scalpels, but he just isn’t his old self until he learns Ichi is coming to kill him next. The fear of impending death, it turns out, makes Kakihara giddily excited because he has seen Ichi’s work and admires it greatly. “I’m scared!” he says with a childlike glee. “I have goosebumps!”
I’m leaving an awful lot out, as I often do, to avoid even minor spoilers. Yet what I want to talk about most is the ending, which is both extremely satisfying and anti-climatic. Hollywood has programmed us to expect everything to be neat and tidy by the time the credits roll, expecting the surviving characters to be miraculously cured of their afflictions. Yet Ichi the Killer has set itself up in such a way that if it gives us what we expect to see, it will only leave us disappointed. Either way, you won’t necessarily be happy with the outcome, but I maintain you’re not supposed to like it.
I keep saying you’re not supposed to like it, which is misleading because I very much liked it as a whole. The movie can have you laughing (nervously, perhaps) when you aren’t peeking through your fingers or reeling in disgust. Like Audition, it’s a beautiful movie which can turn hideous at the drop of a hat, especially when it isn’t cutting corners with cheap CGI. There are plenty of scenes in which it goes too far, maybe even way too far.
That’s probably the point. Miike obviously isn’t concerned about viewers who will take a knee-jerk moral stance, which is refreshing in the era of corporate-owned studios frequently bowing to the slightest bit of social media pressure. (Mob mentalities do not make good writers and the trend to give audiences exactly what they think they want is the biggest reason I don’t go to the theater much anymore. Criticism is fine, but so is making movies which will generate strong criticisms.) The only thing Miike’s concerned about is being true to his characters, so it isn’t a movie in which traumatic events make heroes out of victims, but a movie in which traumatic events fuck people up in complex, unpleasant, and inconvenient ways.
I think that’s much more effective and true-to-life than heroes who solve their problems with a loaded gun (not that I have anything against a good revenge tale). So you killed the person who fucked you up. Now what? You stop being traumatized? Once again I point to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as the rare example of a genre film which points out that surviving isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Ichi the Killer is another example, though in a much different way.
As with many movies which get banned by governments around the world, it’s probably not so much the content that scares them, but the power behind the movie. There are those who love Ichi the Killer and those who hate it. They’re both right. I happen to be one of the people who love it. Maybe I’m just a masochist, but I need this much more than I need another Thor or Batman movie.