Cult Corner: There's No Love in Your Violence: Ichi the Killer (2001)

Ichi the Killer (2001) is arguably Takashi Miike's most infamous film due to its graphic depictions of horrific gore. However, it's not just "torture porn", it's a film about how the viewers themselves consume violence. 

On the surface, Ichi the Killer is a mostly straightforward tale about two rival yakuza gangs. One of the gang's leaders goes missing and his sadistic enforcer Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano) makes it his sole mission to discover his whereabouts. Meanwhile a mysterious killer known as Ichi (Nao Omori) has been murdering various gang members and nobody is able to stop him. The entire narrative is built around the dual story lines of Kakihara and Ichi and the various ways they intersect with each other.

Miike filmed this with 16mm which gives the film a grainy, low-fi aesthetic. It almost feels like a direct-to-video affair and it occupies that same trashy space. The gore is a bit dated looking as they use CGI for some of the blood effects, but most of the set-pieces look incredibly convincing, particularly the scene where a yakuza member is suspended by hooks in his back and tortured by Kakihara. The music is fantastic and equal parts creepy and beautiful depending on what the story needs.

Ichi and Kakihara are two sides of the same coin--they represent the duality of the nature of violence. Kakihara represents the alluring and stylized version of sadism. He dresses flamboyantly and possesses a charismatic personality. Whenever he gets the chance, he loves to torture people, thinking of creative ways to prolong their agonies. His face is covered in self-inflicted scars and piercings, and the corners of his mouth are slit to give him a permanent devilish grin. Although the acts he commits are abominable, somehow it's hard to look away, as there is something mesmerizing about his work, his art. Kakihara is the epitome of fetishism, and he spends the entire course of the film lamenting the fact that nobody can make him hurt enough to feel true ecstasy. The closest he comes to reaching nirvana is by carving away at his victims. He is the violence that audience members clamor to watch.

On the flip side of the coin, we have Ichi, who is the personification of the guilt one feels after indulging in one's fetishes and also the stand-in for the viewer. Ichi spends his time playing fighting games and participating in voyeurism. He is secretly obsessed with observing a local pimp physically abuse and rape one of his sex workers and he masturbates while watching this horror. He is a consumer of brutality and he gets sexually aroused by it. However, he is weak and sniveling--and although he eventually indulges in his violent tendencies, he does not derive the same joy from it that Kakihara does. Kakihara is the action and Ichi is the result of said actions. The pleasure is diametrically opposed to the pain.

The entire film is built upon the idea of opposites and expectations versus reality. Ichi the Killer makes no morality judgement against its characters, it just presents them as they are. The ending is anti-climatic but also has a purpose: to show the futility of violence. Despite all the build-up and the bravado that Kakihara puts forth, in the end, he too is nothing. Violence can never create anything, it can only take away. 

--Michelle Kisner