The horrible, hilarious violence of Ichi The Killer

The horrible, hilarious violence of Ichi The Killer

There’s probably no good way to ease into the films of Takashi Miike, at least in the days before the prolific genre maestro started varying his extreme cinema provocations with offbeat experiments like the splatter-musical The Happiness Of The Katakuris or Sukiyaki Western Django. But I’ll never forget the odd sensation of seeing my first Miike, Ichi The Killer, at the 2001 Toronto Film Festival, where promotional barf bags were handed out in a cheeky effort to calibrate expectations. Though I rarely walk out on movies, the scheduling conflicts at film festivals make it easy to bail on one screening to make another, and the first 15 minutes of Ichi The Killer tested my flight-or-fight instinct like no other movie I can recall. It was purely a visceral response: How much more of this mayhem could I physically handle without, well, reaching for the barf bag? 

Let’s set the scene:

One of the very first scenes has a pimp viciously pummeling a prostitute in the face and raping her while outside, on the balcony, a man in a black latex bodysuit masturbates. Out of an animated puddle of semen emerges the title: Ichi The Killer. But that’s just an amuse-bouche for the main course, an extended torture sequence that—at the time, anyway, before the debased likes of A Serbian Film and Martyrs—presses at the boundaries of representation. Acting on a rumor over who was responsible for his boss’ disappearance, Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano), a notoriously sadistic yakuza enforcer, gets his hands on Suzuki (Susumu Terajima), a gang leader thought to be bitter over a dispute in the pornography business. Wanting answers—and also wanting, just as fervently, the opportunity to dish out creative forms of abuse—Kakihara suspends Suzuki’s body from ceiling with giant hooks embedded into his shoulders, back, and legs, which hold him in a position not unlike Tom Cruise during the Langley break-in in Mission: Impossible. When that doesn’t get him the information he wants, Kakihara whips out a thin metal skewer and threads it through his left cheek and tongue. And failing that, he picks up a burbling pan of oil and douses Suzuki’s back and head until the skin starts peeling off. The shrimp tempura will have to wait. 

There are two possible reactions to this sequence the way Miike stages it. The first, obviously, is revulsion. There’s only a tiny subset of people who would even consider subjecting themselves to images that extreme—and within that, only the stout-hearted (or thoroughly desensitized) will emerge unshaken. The second, believe it or not, is laughter, and it’s this reaction that most surprised me when I was watching the sequence unfold—and it’s what ultimately kept me in my seat. Time and again, Miike passes a threshold in Ichi The Killer where the grotesque becomes comical, and the extreme becomes cartoony and ridiculous, a joke unto itself. Based on Hideo Yamamoto’s manga, Koroshiya 1, the film is an experiment in bringing manga-style violence and sexuality to live-action without much modification. And when human skin is made to stretch like Mr. Fantastic, the elasticity of the medium itself is tested. 

Asano’s Kakihara stands as one of the great modern villains, a sadomasochist who’s concerned less with the business of being a yakuza than the pleasure of dishing out (and receiving) the bloody retribution that comes with the job. When his mentor Anjo goes missing, along with over 3 million yen, Kakihara reacts with a strange ambivalence: He’s sad that Anjo, the only man who truly understood how best to torture him, is gone, but he clearly relishes the opportunity to interrogate potential suspects. And if they happen to be innocent, all the better: That only means more rivals he can merrily escort to the brink of death and beyond. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that kicking the hornet’s nest might be an existential threat to his own clan’s business, because his business is violence. With his shock of blond hair and the Joker-like smile created by permanent slits extending from the corners of his mouth, Kakihara gets the unforgettable introduction he deserves: 

As in his three increasingly outrageous Dead Or Alive films, which sandwich Ichi The Killer, Miike focuses on a showdown of opposing but equally titanic forces. The Ichi of the title, played by Nao Ohmori, has none of Kakihara’s zeal for ultra-violence, but if anything, is capable of doing more horrific destruction. Emotionally damaged and highly suggestible—he tends to sob meekly before his switchblade boots rise in a roundhouse kick to the jugular—Ichi acts as a kind of Manchurian candidate for yakuza boss Jijii (Shinya Tsukamoto), who uses implanted memories to rouse him into action. When Ichi attacks, the mess of body parts and innards is so absurdly grotesque that his clean-up crew has as much blood to Swiffer off the ceiling as the floor. He’s the innocent and passive counterpart to Kakihara’s licentious mischief-maker, a killer less by nature than nurture. 

Along with the byzantine plotting—another carry-over from manga, perhaps—Miike includes the flashbacks, fake memories, and explanations that account for what drives these men to such extremes. He did the same thing more effectively in his 1999 film Audition, which carries a measure of sympathy—or at least understanding—of a lonely young woman whose torture of a middle-aged widower with needle and piano wire comes rooted in her own abuse. Generally, these accountings are unnecessary and reductively pop-psychological; we don’t need anyone at the end of Psycho to explain Norman Bates’ behavior when Anthony Perkins’ performance and the revelation about his mother do the job. But Miike approaches these issue from a fresh angle: In Audition, the victim’s deception in holding a fake “audition” in order to find a love connection makes him partly responsible for the blowback that follows. Here, Kakihara and Ichi are prisoners to surrogate fathers that treat them (or have treated them, in the former case) like pitbulls trained to attack. The big difference, beyond their temperaments, is that with the loss of his mentor, Kakihara is a dog off the chain. 

Movies like Ichi The Killer cemented Miike’s reputation for creative torture well before the likes of Saw and Hostel came along, but it’s his sense of humor that sells these scenes as much as the imaginative torments visited upon the human body. The running joke of Ichi The Killer is that Kakihara and Ichi are so vicious in their methods that even hardcore yakuza thugs turn their heads in disgust. While Kakihara manages to hold Anjo’s clan together under his leadership—partly out of fear, and likely also because it’s better to have him as friend than adversary—his henchmen are inclined to wait outside when things get really ugly. Sometimes they don’t get the chance, like when he decides, in an impromptu gesture of repentance, to restore his honor by severing his own tongue on the spot (and carrying out a bloody, mush-mouthed cell phone conversation afterwards). Miike’s mix of the gruesome and the outrageously funny reaches its peak when Kakihara’s extra-wide maw gets employed in a way that’s fine for a Warner Bros. cartoon, but utterly disgusting in live action: 

In retrospect, my initial response to Ichi The Killer seems correct: The film operates like its own S&M session, finding that threshold where pain becomes pleasure—and the seemingly gratuitous becomes art. Miike is not just pushing the limits but extending them, and with his best films, like Ichi The Killer, he seems keenly attuned to what his audience can take and what more he can press them to accept. “There’s no love in your violence,” Kakihara gently informs a hapless assailant before grinding his clenched fist like a cheese grater. Miike does his violence with conviction.  

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