The following opinion may be a little hard to explain, but Ichi the Killer, a film containing extreme violence, beatings, rapes, drug abuse, bullying, cruelty, sexual perversity, and torture, is one of the most exuberantly energetic and hilarious films in prolific Japanese madman Takashi Miike's extensive filmography. Scenes in which I normally take no pleasure, such as rape, women being beaten severely, and drawn-out scenes of intense physical torture, take on a more complex, perverse meaning in this film. Nearly every character is a sadist, masochist, or combination of the two and an active participant in his/her fate. These are people with intensely strange sexual appetites and desires, freely choosing their roles and getting off on it. Well, a few people get tortured and killed against their will, but they knew the risks as members or associates of the yakuza.
A very strange, hard-to-categorize film is a fairly average description of most Miike movies, but this one is especially nuts. From the beginning, when a yakuza bodyguard is verbally berated for suggesting placing a guard outside the boss's door and a peeping tom masturbates to a prostitute taking a beating from her pimp only for the movie's title to slowly rise up out of his ejaculate, you know you're not getting a traditional Japanese gangster movie. The boss of the Anjo gang is missing (should have listened to the bodyguard), and the sickly and easily startled next-in-command orders the rest of the gang to find him. The search team is led by the charismatic Kakihara, a bleached-blonde sadomasochist with a heavily scarred face, including two slits on the side of his mouth where smoke from his cigarettes escapes in two separate puffs. Kakihara's not your average yakuza seduced by money and outlaw status. He has chosen his line of work because it presents a greater opportunity to inflict and receive intense pain. Kakihara continually pushes the pain threshold and his search for punishment is getting more and more extreme. Meanwhile, a bizarre man named Jijii is pulling the strings of a nervous young man named Ichi, reminding him of the severe bullying he received in high school and pushing him to murder several yakuza members by comparing them to his bullies. Ichi doesn't want to kill, but goes crazy when the memories come back. He dresses up in a fairly Batmanesque superhero costume with blades in his shoes and murders the shit out of some gangsters. He has some weird rape fantasies of his own and develops a sadomasochistic/voyeuristic relationship with a prostitute and her violent pimp. Meanwhile, rival families are conspiring against each other, sadists and masochists are finding each other, a little boy starts idolizing Ichi, and Kakihara realizes Ichi may be the one to give him the ultimate release.
Miike presents this material in a heavily stylized, energetic sprint that never lets up for the film's two-plus hours. Somehow, it doesn't get exhausting and instead reveals more layers for each character. I'm usually not a fan of hyper-stylization, but Miike is such an intensely personal, inventive filmmaker with such a varied skill set that he always wins me over. He picks the techniques that best match the tone and feel of his story and never uses stylistic tricks just because he can. He's as equally capable of a meditative pace and classical Hollywood and Japanese storytelling as he is extreme shock and gore and sexual depravity and flashy editing and camera tricks. He will try anything and is unafraid of pushing his characters and stories as far as they will go. He's funny as hell, too.
It's hard to explain what's funny about this movie, but I'll try. In one scene, Kakihara slices part of his tongue off in graphic closeup as tribute for torturing a rival gang member without permission. After he finishes the job, his cell phone rings and he answers it, casually having a chat as his mouth gushes blood. In another scene, a rival gangster is cornered at his apartment. He is stuck inside his TV stand, with his head in the busted-out television screen. Some recently arrived members of the gang look at the early arrivals quizzically. "He was already in there when we got here, we just taped him up," one says. In another scene, the boss's girlfriend falls for Kakihara when she sees him stretching the skin of a club owner's cheek. She grabs the other cheek and starts stretching it, the club owner howling in pain. She begins moaning in pleasure. "I want to be your woman," she tells Kakihara, digging her fingernails into the man's cheek. Okay, maybe you have to see it, not read it, but these scenes and many others had me laughing. If this kind of black humor appeals to you, you'll be happy to know the film is loaded with these moments.
(By the way, the woman playing the boss's girlfriend was Miss Singapore and a contestant in the Miss Universe pageant. I wonder how a country that banned chewing gum feels about one of its prominent representatives appearing in one of Miike's most infamous films.)
So is this ultra-violent gangster/horror/action/gore/sex comedy ultimately a heartwarming tale of how none of us are truly alone, no matter how bizarre our tastes and proclivities? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it's just an adolescent provocation, a collection of fucked-up people doing fucked-up things in deliberately offensive and stomach-turning ways. And is there something wrong with me for enjoying it so much? Am I a masochist, too? I doubt it.
I first saw this film on the big screen at an Alamo Drafthouse midnight show. I ordered a beer and some chips and queso while watching it and made the mistake of wiping my eye, accidentally wiping salt from the chips and a bit of spicy queso on my eyeball. It stung like mad for 20 minutes and sporadically throbbed for the remainder of the screening. Watching it again from the comfort of my home last night and not accidentally wiping salty, spicy food particles on my eyeball at any point, I have to admit I strongly preferred the pain-free viewing experience.
In conclusion, all church youth groups and scouting troops should screen this film at your next gathering. You'll love it.