I approach Ichi The Killer in the way I would a friend who once did some pretty stupid things in high school. Takashi Miike is as skilled, important, and eye-opening a director as there is, but it seems inevitable that a guy with a hundred-plus feature films under his belt would turn out some clinkers. I disliked Ichi when it first came out in 2001, and I like it even less now, in big part because Miike — and most everyone else in the cast, too — have demonstrated time and again since how they are so much better than this. Like Ninja Scroll or Legend Of The Overfiend, Ichi is mostly important because of its notoriety and its nerve, not its actual accomplishments. The fawning praise that has been thrown around for the film (because it's "transgressive") is only slightly less noxious than the film itself.
Ichi — adapted with distressing fidelity from Hideo Yamamoto's equally outlandish manga, which will probably never show up in English at this rate — starts off with as blunt a tipping of the hand as any movie is likely to have. It gives us the titular Ichi masturbating as he watches a pimp assault one of his girls, then segues into the movie's opening credits rising out of a puddle of semen. (As someone else put it in the comments section of another review, "Bet you Saul Bass would have never thought of that.")
Ichi (Nao Omori) is, as we learn, a hitman of stupefying sadism and brutality. Clad in a rubber bodysuit, like a superhero wannabe, and with spring-loaded razors that pop out of his heels, he slices open necks and guts his prey like fish. He's left a terrible mess in the apartment of crime boss Anjo, his latest kill, but that's okay; Ichi's own boss, "Jiji" (Shinya Tsukamoto) sends in his cleanup crew to tidy up the place and make it look like Anjo ran off with ¥3 million in the gang's boodle and perhaps spent it on hookers and blow.
In comes Anjo's top enforcer, Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano), sniffing around for clues about his boss. In a movie crammed to the sprocket holes with colorful characters, Kakihara is downright Hexachrome. And not just because of his staggeringly outlandish pimp jackets and dress shirts: His slashed-up cheeks widen his mouth at both ends, which he normally keeps pinned together by way of piercings. (In an earlier review I wrote, I wondered how he managed to drink without ruining his clothes.)
Whether out of a sense of duty to Anjo, or because torturing people is just really really fun, Kakihara sets out to find the truth. Acting on a tip from Jiji, Kakihara strings up rival gangster Suzuki (Takeshi Kitano regular Susumu Terajima), skewers him with stilletos, and showers him with boiling oil. When Suzuki's boss (Jun Kunimura) demands restitution, Kakihara provides it by slicing off ... no, not his pinky, but the end of his tongue — in gory close-up — and delivering it in a bottle of alcohol.
Eventually, between the various video-nasty moments that litter the film and the undulations of the plot (there's a lot of mostly redundant internecine gang warfare stuff), a proper story takes shape. Ichi is the product of Jiji's brainwashing and psychological manipulation, a human weapon he created as part of his ongoing campaign to have the various yakuza clans all decimate each other. He's normally a sniveling crybaby, but when excited (in every sense of that term), he goes into a throat-slashing frenzy.
The irony — if that's the word for it — is in how Kakihara finds himself growing increasingly obsessed with Ichi the more he hears about him. Kakihara enjoys receiving pain almost as much as he likes dishing it out, and so maybe this Ichi can give him the kind of violence he's been seeking and never quite finding all this time. But all this is complicated when Ichi defends from bullies the son of one of Kakihara's henchmen, Kaneko (one of the few ostensibly "good" characters in the film), and Jiji is forced to use Anjo's one-time girlfriend, Karen (now Kakihara's current squeeze), to unchain Ichi's id all the way.
And so on. When I first watched Ichi, I did so knowing full well what I was getting into, and was still taken aback by it. My problem was not merely that the movie was violent, cruel, nihilistic, ugly, misogynist; it's all of those things, and any one of them alone would be bad enough for most people. My problem is that the movie tries to bite off far more than it can possibly chew, let alone swallow, by way of this material. Miike is a smart man and has created some extraordinary insightful work, and he clearly wanted to have Ichi be some kind of gutter-level meditation on its grimy material. But in the end, the grime won.
One key problem I have involves the way excuses get made for a movie like this — what I call the "endurance test" theory of art, the idea that the more "intense" or "transgressive" something is, the more "genuine" it is or the more it rises to artistic heights. This last is one of the defenses for the way the movie juxtaposes scenes of cold-blooded or sexualized violence with scenes of comic or slapstick violence. Ergo: when Ichi walks in on a pimp beating his prostitute half to death, he responds by cartoonishly slicing the man up the middle, and then slashing the woman's throat in anything but cartoonish fashion.
The first time I saw that, I realized how Orwellishly easy it is to defend such things by writing something like: See how our sensibilities are being tested! First we laugh, then we cringe, then we do both at once! But no, I didn't feel "challenged" by the way the movie was forcing me to "confront my feelings" about what I was being shown, or any such folderol. I was being shown things that were ugly and horrible, and being asked to marvel at how clever the director was in making live-action jokes out of them. I had a limit, and the movie passed it, and no, I don't consider that to be a sign of value on the movie's part.
Make mine another Miike
It's not discussed often enough, I think, how an artist's failures can be as influential, maybe even more so, as their successes. In that sense, I think the best refutation for Ichi The Killer can be found simply by looking elsewhere in Takashi Miike's catalog. Not just in the sense that he's done the transgressive thing elsewhere and done it to far better, less self-contradictory effect (Visitor Q, Dead Or Alive), but because he has redeeming qualities above and beyond just being a transgressionist (Sabu, Izo, The Bird People In China). The more I look back over his work, the more Ichi feels like an aberration, not a culmination. But it's the aberration that he's remembered most for, I fear. I don't think Miike himself gets off on what goes down in Ichi, but it's not hard to see why someone would think that was the case.
I have a fairly high threshold for violence in my entertainment, but I'm not amused when a movie tries to push too many of my buttons there. This is at least in part because I'm a lot more wary now than I used to be of the way such things can be excused by others, made to look chic and high-flown. I don't think violent movies cause people to go out and commit violence, especially when it's exaggerated and theatrical violence. But I do think if we surround ourselves unthinkingly with violent entertainments, it becomes easier to ignore the ways violent entertainments don't always earn the right to exploit the things they make use of. In other words, I don't think films themselves are irresponsible, but I do think filmmakers and audiences can be irresponsible in their uses of them, and that too much of the way something like Ichi is defended feels similarly unwise.
This is the trap I feel people are falling into when they say the violence in the film is too absurd to be taken seriously. Which violence, I say? The part where the guy gets sliced up the middle, or the part where the prostitute gets nearly beaten to death and then has her throat cut? (There's far worse than that in other scenes, but I won't go into it here.) Saying that the point of the movie is to spur such discussions is like saying a guy who lights cigarettes near a gas pump is just conducting a vapor test.
My point here is not to say that any movie that depicts violence is worthless, or that sexualized violence isn't a suitable topic for fiction. It's that Ichi wants to have it both ways — it wants the violence to be both a joke and not a joke, and that's not how it works. Or, at the very least, it is one of those things that can turn against you as readily it can serve you — and in this case, it's been leveraged for the sake of payoff that hardly seems worth the trouble. This isn't to say the ambivalent relationship we have to violence in our entertainment can't be explored through something that itself has an ambivalent relationship to violence. This just isn't it.
Yet another defense of Ichi comes by way of the tradition of exploitation cinema — if you want to make a daring cinematic omelet, you gotta break some eggs. No question that Miike breaks eggs better than almost anyone else manhandling a camera these days. But that doesn't work for me, either. Part of it, again, is that he's just done better elsewhere. The other part of it is simple logic: that some of yesterday's "trash" cinema is now today's pathbreaking work (see: Shock Corridor) doesn't mean that making something that's self-consciously trash will work as a successful bid for artistic immor(t)ality.
I'm never going to think Ichi The Killer isn't important, simply because Takashi Miike is important. But there's not likely to come a day when I'll think of Ichi The Killer as being any good.