Based upon the Manga of the same name, Ichi the Killer is one of controversial director Takashi Miike’s most well known (and most gruesome) works. Often found on lists of the most disturbing films of all time this is certainly not one for casual moviegoers who require a calm, numbing escape from reality. The numerous scenes of rape, graphic torture, and blood-spraying violence is sure to scare off all but the most hardened fans of Extreme Cinema. As always, the most important question becomes “is there more to this film than it’s graphic content or is it little more than a two hour exercise in shock value?” Well, let’s discuss.
When the head of the Anjo crime family goes missing it’s up to the ultra-sadistic chief enforcer Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano) to get to the bottom of what happened. As Kakihara begins his brutal investigation, he soon discovers that a mysterious man named Ichi (Nao Ohmori) may be the key to uncovering the fate of the boss. As the bodies begin to pile up, he also realizes that Ichi may also be the only one sadistic enough to prove a worthy challenger.
That’s the plot in very broad strokes but there is a lot more going on here. The storylines of Jijii (Shin’ya Tsukamoto), the head of a body disposal crew, Kaneko (Hiroyuki Tanaka) the disgraced policeman turned Yakuza gunman, and Karen (Paulyn Sun), the boss’ bilingual prostitute girlfriend, all factor heavily into the complex, interwoven story.
At the heart of any film, what really matters is how engaging the story that is being told is and how well it can sustain the viewers interest throughout the runtime. This is where Ichi the Killer really shines because, underneath the gruesome blood and violence, is an incredibly well-structured story that will hold your attention through fascinating and unpredictable twists and turns. As the story goes on, more and more details are revealed, as Miike masterfully unveils the backstory and character motivations in a natural and deliberate manner.
Even after you’ve unraveled the whole story the film remains highly rewatchable and I actually enjoyed it more upon the second viewing. This is in large part due to the highly skilled acting on display across the board, as well as the fascinating characters themselves. It’s always refreshing to see a film where there are no “good guys” and “bad guys” but rather a host of complex characters with a variety of motivations. Kakihara for one, is without a doubt one of the best and most realistic portrayals of a true sociopath that I have ever seen, a dead-eyed, asexual psycho who only enjoys pain and sees no value in human life. However, Ichi himself is the most interesting and unusual character, a craven, whimpering, coward in a superhero costume who unleashes reactionary bursts of ultraviolence when upset.
Since this is an Extreme Cinema film, the gore is naturally an important factor. In this regard the film delivers in many scenes where throats are slashed, limbs hacked off, and of course the infamous suspension hooks/boiling oil scene. These scenes are mostly well executed and feature cringe-inducing brutality, but there were a couple points where the effects missed the mark. The most glaring example of this was when a character is literally split in half and Miike opted to go for cartoony looking CGI, rather than a more realistic practical effect that would have created a far better illusion.
Ultimately, this is a very exciting, interesting film that will be highly enjoyable for those who enjoy challenging cinema and have had enough of Hollywood’s safe, bland, escapism bullshit. It’s also an excellent introduction to one of cinema’s great auteurs, Takashi Miike, whose work is fascinating, unpredictable and completely fucking uncompromising.