Review: Ichi the Killer (2001)

After seeing Takashi Miike’s wonderful 13 Assassins, I wondered if I’d overlooked a few of his films because of what I’d heard about them.  I liked 13 Assassins so much, I thought I should go back and check out Miike’s most infamous work, Ichi the Killer.  I must say that it lives up to its reputation as a twisted piece of cinema, but with Miike at the helm, there is more to it than gore.  Torture pron this is not.

I wonder how much to tell you because the film starts out so ambiguously.  You hardly know who is who and what’s going on.  It does become clearer but never crystal clear.  This is a film about grey areas.  It’s about human perversion and the control (or lack thereof) of one’s thoughts.  It’s about a world that isn’t quite real and people who, sadly, are.  I wasn’t thrilled with the over-the-top violence but it was nice to see a film that was actually about ideas for a change.  No, they aren’t the sort of ideas I’d like to have rattling around in my head from day to day, but that doesn’t make them any less worthy of exploration.  I was expecting an exploitation picture, and to a degree it is that, but it’s also a critique of humanity in the same way that Se7en was.

You’ve probably seen the cover art for Ichi on Netflix and assumed the scarred, blonde Joker is Ichi.  He is not.  The blonde is Kakihara, played to perfection by Tadanobu Asano who I last saw in Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi.  Kakihara is pissed because the boss of his yakuza gang is missing and possibly dead.  A mysterious man named Ichi is implicated during he search and is said to have dismembered the boss.  This leads the already twisted Kakihara further down the rabbit hole of pain and pleasure in his hunt for his boss and his gang’s revenge.

This isn’t a lot of fun to watch, but I couldn’t stop watching.  It’s compelling because in most films death is tossed around like biscuits at a church social.  No big deal, Mr. D.  But here, death and pain are real and they have consequences.  It’s difficult viewing at times, but Miike takes his characters seriously even when they’re doing ridiculously heinous things.  I could see this being almost humorous with another director at the helm.

The plot is hard to follow at times, but I think that’s intentional.  Moments that remind characters of their pasts flip back and forth in time, obscuring the conventional timeline of the film.  Perception and reality are often at odds with one another.

CGI elements are particularly bad and have the nasty habit of removing the viewer from the action.  In some ways, I was grateful for that.  It was nice to get a break from the more realistic violence.  Still, it’s interesting to note that Miike has learned that it’s often what you don’t see that is more terrifying.  Ichi is the work of a much less sophisticated Miike than the one who directed 13 Assassins.  Even so, you can see the same mind at work in both.

I have a hard time recommending anyone watch this over Netflix streaming.  The images are often so dark that with Netflix’s compression it’s hard to make out what you’re seeing.  I don’t think the film would look like that in the cinema.

Recommended for horror fans who’re tired of American horror-lite.

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