Cult Cinema: Ichi the Killer

Andrew reviews Takashi Miike's hyperviolent manga masterpiece.

Are there any films out there which address audience bloodlust as successfully as Michael Haneke’s Funny Games or Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers?  Although both films assail the viewer with extremely violent scenes of murder and death while simultaneously critiquing the viewer for their fervent consumption of such dangerous images, very few of them manage to purport the same argument without taking a holier than thou moralistic stance on the topic.  One such fantastical horror film however has managed to be at once a vampiric feast of flesh and blood and a condemnation of the very images onscreen without being preachy or forced, letting the viewer arrive at their own conclusions instead of being led by the hand of the auteur.  That film is cult Japanese director Takashi Miike’s 2001 hyperkinetic, comical, cringe and wretch inducing manga based yakuza shocker Ichi the Killer.  Based upon the manga by artist Hideo Yamamoto (not to be confused with Miike’s regular cinematographer of the same name) and adapted by Gozu screenwriter Sakichi Sato, the film tells the ensemble story of two homicidal maniacs at the epicenter of a brutal and bloody war between rival yakuza factions. 

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While peppered with a cacophony of minor yakuza characters, the film is primarily a personal battle between the film’s deadliest characters, one of whom is a sadistic and sadomasochistic yakuza monster named Kakihara (Tadanabou Asano) and the other being a deeply disturbed sociopath named Ichi (Nao Omori) who is induced to commit ghastly murders by Jijii (Tetsuo: The Iron Man director Shinya Tsukamoto), the leader of a cleanup crew picking up after the severed limbs and entrails of Ichi’s handiwork.  At once a yakuza picture of the new millennium and an exercise in sadistic manga ultraviolence, Ichi the Killer at once functions as a character study of two deeply disturbed men while drawing a thinly veiled connection between ourselves and the monsters onscreen.  Filled with Miike’s trademark mixture of both cartoonishly artificial and cruelly realistic violence with little insight towards how we the viewer should take the amoral transgressions happening onscreen, Ichi the Killer is at once a ragingly controversial exploitation of the nastiest resources of modern horror and a scathing critique of the viewer for eagerly consuming said exploitations.  Among the film’s many startling images is a brief moment where the camera passes by a dead body in a tube television box laid out on the street corner by the trash as passerby walk on without batting an eye, suggesting shock and awe is so common in the media the average person has become desensitized to its presence. 

Particularly cruel towards its female characters past the point of misogyny (though arguably the male characters fare worse for wear), no one in this mean and mad sadism drenched romp gets away clean or in one piece.  And yet there’s a method to Miike and Yamamoto’s madness, grounding the shocks with a character driven underpinning contrasting the moral compasses of Kakihara and Ichi.  Though titled Ichi the Killer while giving equal time to both characters, Miike’s film is mostly about our connection to the depraved but flamboyantly cool Kakihara.  With his bleached blond hair barely obscuring his battle scarred face with two slits across his lips, forming a Joker-like smile held together by two rings, a standout image includes the sicko in question smoking a cigarette as he casually blows smoke from the open cuts in his face.  While we might be appalled by Kakihara’s actions as he grins his way through every slicing and dicing he commits, including a scene involving meat hooks and needles that will make your hair stand on end, we’re undeniably drawn into the groovy and almost homoerotic aura radiating from the man.  Ichi on the other hand is a far more mercurial and debatably more vile character for having as much guilt over his bloodshed as sexual arousal, including a polarizing and potentially offensive opening sequence where he masturbates to a pimp violently raping a prostitute, the film’s title itself rising up from a puddle of semen on the balcony. 

From the get go, Ichi the Killer feels like an angry punk trolling puritanical sensibilities with all the subtlety of a flasher shaking his publicly exposed member about.  Causing enormous controversy upon release, the film is banned in at least three countries and faced heavy censorship throughout the world with heavy cuts imposed on many sequences while other scenes are dropped in their entirety.  When I first saw this in the theater, I was handed a vomit bag at the ticket booth which I still have today.  My first exposure to who would soon become one of my favorite modern Japanese directors catches the insanely prolific provocateur around the time his films first started receiving attention in the United States.  Still very busy in the film world including having achieved mainstream critical and commercial solidarity in the years since his still divisive and for some offensive Ichi the Killer, Miike has shown no signs of slowing down his output or softening the sharp edges his works has become notorious for.  An obvious influence on Kill Bill Vol. 1, notably with the Boss Tanaka sequence and the casting of Sakichi Sato as Charlie Brown, Ichi the Killer is that rare film which functions as a transgressive endurance test and a richly detailed character driven critique of our own unspoken bloodlust.  

Early in production, heartthrob ladies’ man Tadanabou Asano expressed he doesn’t like violent films which begs the question why he agreed to play one of the most violent and sadistic characters in fiction.  After discussion with Miike, the difference between doing violence because the story requires it and doing it because you can quickly became plain as day and Asano eagerly accepted the challenge of participating in Miike’s shocker.  Like Asano, we can’t help but watch and enjoy Ichi the Killer’s perversely sick extremes against our better judgment.  Lending itself to nothing other than the source, the film is at once a pure expression of its director, a hyperkinetic adaptation of Yamamato’s manga and a change for some of Japan’s most gifted actors to challenge themselves in ways they never imagined.  Dubbed the Godfather of modern V cinema while standing on the shoulders of Tsukamoto and further informing the eventual emergence of Sion Sono, Takashi Miike has created an intentionally indigestible work which proves to be both an endurance test for some and a richly detailed character study for others.  Not for the faint hearted in the slightest but not to be missed by cinephiles unacquainted with the Japanese provocateur eager to see the closest thing to a comic book on film for adults only.  


- Andrew Kotwicki