It's worth remembering that Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer has its roots in the world of comic books. While Miike's revered 2001 film has its share of advocates and detractors (DVD Talk's own Stuart Galbraith IV doesn't care for it), its cartoonish tone, unrelenting gore and unmitigated masochism can be too much to stomach. It's certainly not a movie to throw on casually; Ichi the Killer, by the nature of its gruesomely elaborate violence, demands your attention -- and has no difficulty holding it for the duration. It's a film that easily stands aside Robert Rodriguez's Sin City as one of the most effective comic-to-film translations ever attempted.
Yet for all of its showy, bloody setpieces -- Ichi (Nao Omori) splitting a brutal pimp in two; the film's iconic villain Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano) dousing a gangster in searing hot oil; myriad arterial sprays (Kill Bill fans will no longer wonder exactly where Quentin Tarantino swiped the idea) -- Ichi the Killer is a work of queasy, morally problematic cool. After all, this is a film whose supposed protagonist is turned on by the idea of raping and beating women; none of the characters in Miike's film have anything approaching redeeming qualities -- beatings, maimings and all manner of graphic dismemberment drift across the screen during its 130-minute run time and often, you're too distanced from the characters to truly care about their fates. Even if you give Miike the benefit of the doubt that he's passing some kind of judgment on the criminals, it's a theory that dwindles away to nothing by the time the credits roll. Miike simply appears too enamored of the high-octane violence to really step outside of it and comment.
Based upon Hideo Yamamoto's manga of the same name, Ichi the Killer is nominally a gangland thriller wrapped up in vivid, borderline-pornographic bloodletting. Ichi, the prototypical nerd who was shoved into one too many lockers in high school, has been molded into a psychosexual vigilante, spending his nights avenging the wrongs inflicted upon whores. Screaming and crying as he viciously dispatches his targets, Ichi develops a reputation for being the most unhinged assassin in the underworld. The deeply twisted Kakihara spends his days creatively torturing various members of the yakuza, often inserting long steel needles in very, very uncomfortable places; his grin split ghoulishly wide and held together with piercings, Asano's portrayal of the utterly soulless pain junkie is something to behold, particularly during the infamous "cheek pull" sequence late in the film.
But what do you come away from Ichi the Killer feeling? Well, aside from numb and probably a bit dazed, you're not left with much to chew on. Miike makes it abundantly clear that, despite any psychological threads he might possibly explore, he doesn't seem interested in these characters beyond their capacity to gush blood. It makes for a desperately hollow experience, one that dazzles with its sanguine creativity, but disappoints with its narrative. Yet I'm recommending it, because it's a piece of cinema that continues to have an impact well past its original release and Media Blasters have pulled together a fair batch of extra material worth considering; curiously, they elected not to try and frame the film in any kind of context aside from its insane amount of carnage. A missed opportunity, I think. Repellent, kinetic, cartoonish and altogether gruesomely violent, Ichi the Killer is a landmark not only of Japanese cinema, but serves as the fountainhead for the Splat Pack, the new breed of filmmaker intent on dialing up the volume as high as possible. Love it or hate it, you won't soon forget -- no matter how hard you try.
Previously released simultaneously in rated and unrated editions by Media Blasters' Tokyo Shock imprint in 2003, this "collector's blood bag" set marks the second region one release of Miike's film. It contains the full, uncut version of Ichi the Killer, which runs 130 minutes (with credits). All of the cut scenes listed on the Internet Movie Database are present in this newest release.
Not having the 2003 unrated edition of Ichi the Killer, it's hard to say whether any drastic improvements have been made to the image, but the packaging claims this is a new 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Given Miike's proclivity for darting between formats (video, film) and the occasionally low-lit sequence, Ichi the Killer looks pretty solid. That said, there's an unshakeable softness throughout the film that nags a bit and some minor flecks near the beginning and towards the end that distract. Overall, very clean and clear, but not without some flaws.
Whereas the visuals are intermittently iffy, the audio seems to overcompensate, getting unbearably loud during the many torture scenes -- most of the women's screaming had me reaching for the remote to dial down the volume. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track (available in Japanese or an English dub) does a good job providing atmosphere -- the sound effects, in particular, are rendered realistically enough to make one's gorge rise. Japanese and English dub Dolby 2.0 stereo are also on board, as are optional English subtitles.
The packaging itself is an extra here -- the "blood bag," which holds both discs, is devastatingly sweet, but ultimately, more awesome to look at than deal with. In terms of easily accessing the discs within, it's a real pain in the ass -- I often had both discs get stuck to the plastic packaging, making for a bit of a struggle to free the DVDs without getting plenty of fingerprints on the disc. Definitely a neat idea, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired.
The first disc, aside from the movie, contains the same commentary track from Miike and Hideo Yamamoto as could be found on the 2003 release, as well as the film's original theatrical trailer, a photo gallery and a seven minute featurette that finds Hostel helmsman Eli Roth waxing euphoric (and stippled with fake blood) about Miike's Ichi. He makes the interesting point that few directors could pull off making a film as hyper-real as this and a film as subtly terrifying as Audition in the same year.
The second disc houses the meat of the supplements, including the 10 minute, 12 second featurette "The Cult of Ichi," which features interviews with illustrator Stephen Bissette, actress Barbara Nedeljakova, director Lucky McKee, producer Scott Spiegel, author Jack Ketchum, Fangoria editor Tony Timpone, director Mike Mendez, Fangoria Radio host Debbie Rochon and author Chris D.; the 48:50 making-of "Memories of Ichi," which features forced English subtitles, interviews with producer Dai Miyazaki, Tadanobu Asano (Kakihara), Nao Omori (Ichi), Sabu (Suzuki), Shinya Tsukamoto (Jijii) and Sabu discussing Ichi with Tsukamoto, playable separately (with forced English subtitles) or all together for an aggregate run time of 18 minutes, 28 seconds with a trailer gallery (Fudoh: The Next Generation, Yokai, Deadly Outlaw Rekka, Izo, The Way to Fight, Visitor Q, Family, One Missed Call, Bodyguard Kiba, Ichi the Killer collector's blood bag and Silver) rounding out the disc.
Repellent, kinetic, cartoonish and altogether gruesomely violent, Ichi the Killer is a landmark not only of Japanese cinema, but serves as the fountainhead for the Splat Pack, the new breed of filmmaker intent on dialing up the volume as high as possible. Love it or hate it, you won't soon forget -- no matter how hard you try. Recommended.