New Age Nasty: Ichi The Killer (2001)

Audition may have been the film that threw Takashi Miike’s name into the Western world, but it was his adaptation of Ichi The Killer (Koroshiya-1) that cemented his reputation as one of the most extreme filmmakers of the 21st Century. Takashi Miike’s Ichi The Killer is an adaptation of the strange, crazy and ultra-violent manga of the same name written by Hideo Yamamoto. However, believe it or not, Takashi Miike’s film adaptation, albeit faithful, is actually very toned down in comparison to the original manga, but with a lot more bizarre, satirical and psychological content thrown in for good measure that wasn’t featured in the original source material. Despite this toning down of the original content, however, Ichi The Killer is definitely by far one of the most extremely gruesome films to come from Takashi Miike. In fact, some sources say that it’s one of the goriest movies ever made what with the massive helpings of blood, sadistic violence and even sexual violence that appear regularly throughout the entire movie. Upon release, Ichi The Killer was such a controversial stir that not only were sick bags handed out during its Toronto premiere, but it was banned outright in Malaysia, Norway and Germany. That being said though, along with many of Takashi Miike’s films, Ichi The Killer became well known amongst Takashi Miike’s dedicated cult following, and as such it stands alongside Audition as the two major films that made Takashi Miike’s name famous in the west.

In all honesty though, Ichi The Killer is a film that’s remembered more for its compelling aesthetic and seminal visual style rather than the substance of its story. The story of Ichi the Killer is one that’s relatively simple: a cat and mouse game between an uncaring, sadistic, masochistic Yakuza henchman as he searches for his missing boss (Kakihara), and a young man (Ichi) who, through psychological manipulation, has become the ultimate killing machine who murders at the behest of his father figure (Jijii). Unlike Audition or Visitor Q, there’s nothing in the plot of Ichi The Killer to really ‘understand’. There’s no deeper meaning or complex themes that one needs to unpack whilst watching the movie as Ichi The Killer is a story about as complex as a Paul Verhoeven action movie such as Total Recall or Robocop. However, much like Paul Verhoeven’s action movies, there’s quite a few intelligent undertones hidden underneath all the blood and gore. Firstly, Ichi The Killer presents quite a few satirical themes throughout the movie, albeit in a welcoming over-the-top way. The film pokes fun at corrupt police, Japanese work culture and Yakuza culture, such as: twin corrupt detectives torture a man and woman for fun, a man is given a knife and told to kill himself after serving the wrong drink whilst working as a waiter, and one of the main characters cut out his tongue because ‘a finger or two is not enough this time’. This all adds up to the movie satirizing multiple aspects of Japanese culture, and whilst other movies push this satirical edge much harder than Ichi The Killer does (take Tokyo Gore Police for example which wears satire like a medal of honor), it is nonetheless interesting to see Ichi The Killer represent these topics throughout its simple action movie plotline.

However, the most important and clever aspect of this movie is the character of Ichi himself. Whilst the manga represents Ichi as a strange individual full of emotional pain, but still somewhat capable of emotional control, Takashi Miike’s Ichi is a shut-in. He never talks, is sexually frustrated, and all he knows is pain, anger and emotional torment. Through the intelligent way that Ichi’s character has been written, and especially through his backstory and the way he is treated by other characters during the movie, his awkward, yet psychopathic tendencies are incredibly logical. Because of Ichi’s depth of character and very detailed psychological aspects, Ichi is a believable and incredibly interesting protagonist. Throughout the movie, his journey goes through a story arc of discovery, one that twists and turns through his manipulation by Jijii as he experiences real world violence at the same time as his sexual awakening.

What’s interesting to note, however, is that Ichi’s character doesn’t really overshadow the other characters of the movie. As I’ve stated before, Takashi Miike’s films are about characters first and foremost before any action or plot, and Ichi The Killer is no exception as the film is full of memorable characters, each with their own personality and bearing upon the film’s story despite how miniscule they may be. Kakihara (who’s face adorns the film’s posters), Jijii and Ichi aren’t the only characters that the move focuses on: there’s Suzuki the gangster, Karen the prostitute, Longie, Inoue, and a wealth of other characters, each with memorable lines, memorable personalities and even more memorable deaths. No character is given the backburner treatment or forgotten entirely as Ichi the Killer gives each individual character present respect and impact before the movie is over, something that’s very rare to see in a fast-paced movie that focuses on one or two characters primarily.

Another incredibly strong aspect of Ichi The Killer is the film’s acting. The performances present in his movie are absolutely fantastic. Nao Ohmori is incredibly memorable as the titular Ichi; his stunted, awkward performance with lashings of outlandish facial expressions completely fit the character. Tetsuo The Iron Man director Shinya Tsukamoto portrays the malicious, strange yet manipulative Jijii perfectly, even going so far as to adding his own particular brand of Tsukamoto bizarre sliminess to the role. Even Paulyn Sun (or Alien Sun as she’s credited), a Hong-Kong actress and Miss Universe contestant gives a sterling performance as the lovingly innocent-yet-devious Karen, despite the fact she had to give half of her dialogue in English because she couldn’t speak Japanese fluently. However, the greatest actor of Ichi The Killer is Tadanobu Asano who plays the role of the evil, sadistic Kakihara. In the early 2000s, Tadanobu Asano was known as Japan’s answer to Johnny Depp, and by watching Ichi The Killer, it’s incredibly clear to see why he earned that nickname. His performance as Kakihara is not only very good, but it’s also incredibly smooth and charming as Tadanobu Asano carries with him an onscreen charisma that is near impossible to replicate. His performance as Kakihara seems second nature despite the physicality and emotional responsibility of the role. In all honesty, it looks like Tadanobu Asano isn’t giving any effort in perfecting his smooth yet utterly intimidating performance. Kakihara is far from a one note character, but Tadanobu Asano delivers his performance with gusto and perfectly nails the style and grace of Kakihara. All in all, the acting in this film is some of the best I’ve seen for a Japanese picture. Each performance is delivered with style, grace, poise, even with a little bit of comedy thrown in for good measure, and it makes each character of Ichi The killer completely unforgettable.

In terms of technicality, Ichi The Killer is an outstanding example of creative editing and exemplar sound design. There isn’t a bad element to the production of Ichi The Killer as far as I’m aware – the cinematography and lighting are quite well done – but Ichi the Killer stands out in Takashi Miike’s library of movies because of it’s fantastic post production work. The editing is fast paced, extremely artistic and creative with some particular sections of the movie looking far from the ordinary as they replicate sections from the original manga to which this movie was based on with fast cuts, montages, and some very odd transactions that break the flow of the film to mix up the pacing. To add to this, the sound design of the movie is perfectly constructed. In addition to the amazing atmospheric music, a lot of sound effects are added during the film’s post-production, and they definitely add a gut-punch to each and every scene into which they are included. For example, take the infamous hanging torture scene: that scene would not be half as memorable if the sound design wasn’t there to provide a disturbing edge to the film as Kakihara thrusts his steel needles into Suzuki’s face.

However, the greatest aspect, and the reason why anybody would seek out this movie in 2001, is because of the film’s ludicrous amounts of gore. The special effects on display on Ichi The Killer are a mix between practical effects and CGI. The practical effects are wonderfully over-the-top with the utilization of fake blood hoses and very realistic prosthetic body parts that definitely make for some disturbing viewing. However, with that being said, the CGI elements of the film are unconvincingly ropey. The 2000s era of CGI is far from the technological advancement we know today, and Ichi The Killer showcases just how dodgy 2000s era CGI can be: horribly contrasted innards, untextured blood splatters, failed blending, the list goes on. However, Ichi The Killer keeps the CGI to a relative medium, only really using CGI when practical effects are near-enough impossible such as super-imposing one actors head onto another, or when a character gets cut down the middle and slowly parts which is something rarely done well in horror to this day. One the contrary, though, due to the not-so-serious nature of Ichi The Killer, the CGI isn’t really a distraction. The film prides itself on being over-the-top with its character, plot and gore, so in the end, the CGI never distracts from the film’s almost ‘fun’ nature. It bizarrely adds to the film’s surreal sense of tone.

In conclusion: Ichi The Killer is a film that, in all honesty, has earned both its controversial nature and its wide success. For me personally, whilst I am a fan of Takashi Miike in general, Ichi The Killer is by far my favorite of his movies. It’s a film I can sit down and just enjoy time and time again thanks to its simplicity, yet subtle intelligence, and of course I enjoy its wealth of SFX and VFX which never ceases to shock and amaze me. It’s definitely one of the best films to come from Takashi Miike, and I urge everyone with a strong stomach for gore to check this fantastically creative and fun movie for themselves.

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