When Yakuza boss Anjo disappears with 100 million Yen, his organisation find themselves on the verge of collapse unless the money can be found. Chief enforcer and S&M nut Kakihara is given the task of finding Anjo; he quickly learns that a mysterious, deadly hitman known as Ichi has murdered Anjo – but on whose instruction?
Ichi the Killer is based on Hideo Yamamoto’s violent, misogynistic manga, and is brought to the screen in typically disturbing style by Takashi Miike. For those who can take it, it proves to be one of Miike’s most stylish and technically impressive films – not to mention one of his funniest. But those who felt that the likes of Audition or Visitor Q were near-to-the-knuckle are well advised to skip this one.
Far from being a merciless, emotionless killer, Ichi is in fact a complete emotional fuck-up, a nervous, podgy young man who has been hypnotised into carrying out former Anjo informer Jijii’s murderous demands. Ichi looks frankly ridiculous squeezed into a faux-superhero costume emblazened with a giant number ‘one’ (‘Ichi’ is Japanese for ‘one’), his killing ability deriving from the razor blades that spring from his shoes that can dismember and disembowel with the slightest flick of his legs. Miike keeps Ichi’s identity a secret for a good 45 minutes – his reputation is built to such a degree that we expect some invincible superhero. Instead we get a tubby nerd with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle complex. Kakihara proves to be the film’s key figure – superbly played by Tadanobu Asano (who also shone in Nagisa Oshima’s samurai love story Gohatto), he dishes out torture to himself and others with equal relish, and his excitement at receiving an unimaginably gruesome death at the hands (and feet) of Ichi is palpable.
There are various other characters – an ex-cop turned mob enforcer repulsed by his work, his young, bullied son, a club hostess whose predilection for hanging around with dangerous types becomes her undoing. Miike manages to keep the film moving without getting too bogged down in sub-plots and characterisation, although at 128 minutes, the final confrontation between Ichi and Kakihara doesn’t come a moment too soon.
The most problematic element here is the level of violence directed at women; while male characters are dispatched in comically gory ways, the graphic rape, assault and breast-slicing that several female protagonists undergo can’t help but leave a nasty taste in the mouth. It’s hard for cinema to truly shock these days, but Ichi the Killer succeeds, if not admirably, then at least comprehensively.
As you’d expect from a film like this, Ichi the Killer is available on DVD in several different versions. Best of all is the 2-disc Dutch edition from FilmWorks, fully uncut and with a host of extras. Premiere Asia’s Region 2 UK disc features many of these bonus goodies, but is missing over three minutes of sexual violence, while the widely available Hong Kong Region 3 version may sport a cool cover but has lost some 13 minutes, with every single violent scene either trimmed or removed completely. Which kind of misses the point.
Japan’s most controversial director, notorious for his dauntingly prolific output and willingness to push the boundaries of taste. Miike started working as an assistant director in the late 80s, before moving into making straight-to-video thrillers in 1991. He made his feature debut in 1995 with the violent cop thriller Shinjuku Triad Society, and since then has averaged around seven films year.