The convoluted but ultimately simple tale focuses on two deeply disturbed men. One is yakuza Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano), a sadistic lieutenant of the Shinjuku-based Anjo Gang, who becomes obsessed with avenging his boss's presumed murder. The other is Ichi (Nao Omori), a 90-pound weakling geek type turned crybaby killer, who mysteriously and savagely butchers yakuza and their whores in a blood-drenched beeline toward the inevitable showdown with Kakihara.
To say the picture is extremely violent would be an understatement, making the vaguely similar Resevoir Dogs a walk in the park by comparison. Not 10 minutes goes by without some horrifying scene of dismemberment, self-mutilation, disembowelment, torture, and rape. An early scene depicts a gangster burned with cooking oil and stabbed with long needles (Kakihara's weapon of choice) while his body dangles facedown from meat hooks running the length of his body. But this turns out merely to be a warm-up for Miike's undeniable showmanship, and Kakihara's depravity. Throughout the picture, the blonde-haired, body-pierced hood's tortures arguably get even nastier, but even worse is Ichi's mayhem. Dressed in superhero garb, like a cast-off sci-fi conventioneer, the super-sensitive Ichi kills his victims with a swift karate kick from a razor-sharp blade that snaps out the heel of his boot. In the film's most notorious scene, Ichi vertically slashes one gangster right down the middle, and thanks to the miracle of CGI, he appears to split in two. Jugular veins are cut and blood sprays like a pressure cooker gone wild. Kakihara's colleagues are cut down to a gooey, slippery, and unrecognizable pile of entrails.
Some may argue such violence is so over-the-top that it becomes cartoonish. Maybe it is, but this reviewer blanches at the notion that audiences can watch these admittedly stylized set pieces and still not consider the dehumanization and desensitization they depict and perpetuate (if not endorse). This film is often cited as "upping the ante" of ultra-violent cinema, but in fundamental ways it bears little resemblance even to the classic yakuza and crime films it references. Ichi isn't the escapist entertainment those movies were, nor does it offer any insight on crime or criminals, and it doesn't even work as a character study. Rather, it's a kind of pseudo-snuff film with a story, monstrous because it can be, utterly lacking in humanity because it can't be anything else. It's sad in an age when Golden Period directors like Naruse and Kinoshita remain unknown in the West, when contemporary artists like Obayashi, Somai, and Kore'eda struggle for distribution, that unpleasant sleaze like Ichi the Killer should find such critical and commercial favor.
The case can be made that a few of these ultra-violent films, notably Kinji Fukasaku's less graphic but more deeply disturbing Battle Royale (2000) have genuine merit, but that's not the case here. Ichi the Killer has no redeeming value at all, other than the effectiveness of its unpleasantness. Though mainly a filmmaker rooted in pastiche, Miike's direction is decent enough, stylized but (for the most part) not distractingly so. The film is certainly loaded with Miike's midnight black humor. There's a scene, for instance, where a disgraced Kakihara, in lieu of the usual pinky, cuts off a chunk of his tongue and promptly takes a call on his cellphone, blithely chatting through all the blood and swollen tissue. This sort of thing, though, is merely a distraction, a way of avoiding the basic shallowness of the entire enterprise.
Ichi's characters are brutal murderers who lack the giri ("sense of duty") and ninjo ("humanity") so fundamental to yakuza heroes of the mythmaking 1960s and '70s. In their place, Kakihara is nothing more than a simple sado-masochist who wants to avenge his boss not out of loyalty but out of a Joseph Mengele-like need to ravage others, and himself.
Ichi, on the other hand, is a geek zonked out on video games and programmed out of his very identity. In these scenes especially the film becomes almost pornographic, not in what is shown, but by its disturbing sympathy and identification with a headcase who is turned on watching women beaten and raped.
Video & Audio
Tokyo Shock's DVD of Ichi the Killer is a good-looking 16:9 presentation reflecting the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. There are optional Japanese and English subtitles, and a choice of the original 5.1 Japanese audio track, or a 5.1 English-dubbed version (where everyone talks like the cast of Get Carter). This DVD is billed as an "uncut special edition," with all the heretofore violence intact; at least it seems to have all the footage previously cut from other versions as exhaustively noted on the Internet Movie Database.
There's a photo gallery and a quartet of trailers (for other Tokyo Shock releases), but the main extra is an audio commentary track (in 2.0 stereo) in Japanese featuring Miike and manga artist/writer Hideo Yamamoto, presented with English subtitles.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.