Somehow, the Q Filmcast guys sort of challenged me to watch, Ichi the Killer. Michael tweeted to me, “Have you seen ICHI? You may need some help sorting this one out Frank.” And followed it up with, “Yes, just to hear you attempt to make sense of it would be marvelous.” Now, I was deceived, but it was my own fault. The Japanese word “ichi” just means the number “one.” I have known that since middle school, but it didn’t occur to me until later. So it should be no surprise that there are a few films with “ichi” in the title, to say nothing of “zatoichi.” I saw a brief summary of the 2008 film, Ichi, about a blind woman who is a great sword fighter. It’s based upon the Kan Shimozawa Zatoichi novel series. Alas no.
When I searched for “ichi” on Netflix, I saw the image on the left. I immediately thought, “Oh my; this will not be fun.” Released in 2001, it has all the markings of a Japanese The Marix. I mean this in more ways than you might think because in a very basic way, the film is just torture porn. Most of the main characters in the film seem only able to experience sexual pleasure through violence and pain. But otherwise, I see a lot of the Wachowskis here. The film is divorced from reality in a similar way and is entirely dependent upon dialog to explain what’s actually going on: two defining characteristics of the Wachowskis’ masterpiece. The film is also intensely dependent upon pointless but often stunning special editing effects. And for all I know, it is the Wachowskis who were stealing from director Takashi Miike and not the other way around.
I can see why Michael would imply that the film doesn’t make much sense, because it doesn’t. The narrative shifts back and forth in time — sometimes in ways that are clearly meant to be vexing. The plot is really simple: Jijii is one of the Yakuza outcasts who has decided, for whatever reason to pit the rival gangs against each other. To do this, he has programmed Ichi into a killing machine using hypnosis, phone calls, and a whole lot of plot vagueness. But basically, this is all accomplished about 45 minutes into the film. The rest of the film centers on Kakihara, a sadomasochist who eagerly awaits Ichi’s coming because everyone has disappointed his masochistic side since his boss was killed (at the beginning by Ichi).
It is possible that I don’t exactly get the ending. But for some reason, Jijii programs Ichi to think that one of Kakihara’s thugs (who had in fact once been very kind of Ichi) is his long lost brother. This results in Ichi not killing Kakihara, who instead kills himself. This seems to bother Jijii. Who knows? Maybe Ichi was supposed to kill Kakihara and then the thug would kill Ichi and Jijii would rule the underworld. I don’t really know. The film also has a tag where Jijii is shown dead, most likely killed by the son of thug who Ichi once helped. Is that meaningful? I have no idea.
No, it’s not meaningful. Takashi Miike directs feature length films faster than anyone I’ve ever heard of. I’ve know some silent film directors who were pumping out films faster, but they were short — not two hours long. I think the film is what it appears to be: torture porn. From the filmmakers’ perspective, it is a very thin excuse to do various things with special effects makeup and gore. There is no hidden meaning. There is just two hours of the same kind of stuff. It’s very stylized, often beautiful to look at. The violence is disturbing for that first 45 minutes and then it just becomes funny. And that appears to be how it is intended. It is very much like watching a juggling act. But is there any juggler you’ve ever wanted to watch for over two hours?
One thing that surprises me is that the film is somewhat notorious for its violence. I will admit that there is a lot of it in the film, but it is straight out of comic books. (Not surprisingly, it is based upon manga series.) Ichi cuts his first on screen victim straight down the middle from top to bottom so finely that you can’t even tell he’s been cut until the pieces start coming apart. This gimmick is used over and over in the film, just like the other major gimmick: piercing torture. I didn’t feel any of it worked especially well. Give me Tom Savini any day.
The only thing that really bothers me about the film is that I don’t think that Miike realizes just what a silly film he has made. But it is the silliness of the film that saves it. Because if it weren’t for the excessive repetition of the same disgusting gimmicks throughout the film, audiences would know right away that the plot makes little sense. Major subplots disappear without a thought in the world. In fact, the script shows every sign of being two different films just jammed together. This is a film made by people who are far more interested in their effects than they are the story. It is, in other words, a fetish film.
Does the film work on it’s own terms? Kind of. It isn’t very creative. Some of the acting is downright bad, although the three leads are all quite good. The rest of it is professionally produced, I suppose. The lighting was very often compromised to the makeup effects. And there seemed to be little art direction generally — most scenes were just really boring apartments where all the filmmakers thought was necessary was the collection of needles pushed through the current victim’s face. But in the end, if I want to watch a silly movie filled with gratuitous gore, I’ll watch Dead Alive again. At least that film is in on the joke. I don’t really think that Ichi the Killer is in on its own joke.