Ichi the Killer (2001)

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*. I’ve seen this movie at least a half a dozen times and I wonder if there’s any point trying to make sense of it. Reading the manga comic book it’s based on would probably help, but I’m not sure it would be worth the effort.
*. I think a lot of my confusion arises from the fact that the story jumps around so much, and you can’t tell when something is a flashback, or if the events we are seeing are real or just a post-hypnotic suggetion or psychotic fantasy. If we accept that Ichi doesn’t kill Kakihara at the end then how does he die? Or does he? And is that an older Takeshi among the schoolchildren looking back at us? I don’t see how there’s any way of telling, based on the information we’re given.
*. Then there are parts that are just left confusing, like Ichi’s relation with the prostitute he later kills, and all of the stuff that goes on in the noodle shop. Is there a flashback in the noodle shop, or is someone (who?) imagining Kakihara’s presence there?
*. Perhaps most mysterious of all is Ichi’s controller, JiJii. His motivation, relationship with Karen, and power over Ichi are all left unexplained. Who is this guy?

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*. If you don’t care whether or not any of it makes sense you can still enjoy the ride, which is like one of those logs that go down waterslides, only this time on an arterial spray of blood. Ichi the Killer has a well-earned reputation as being one of the most violent films ever made, fueled by its penchant for seeing people being torn and pulled apart.

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*. Violent, but not in a way that makes you feel any of the pain. It’s all so overdone and comic-book in nature, a product of the CGI revolution. And it’s worth noting that in at least a couple of scenes even the CGI crew thought the effects made no sense. Miike’s laughing nightmares are so self-consciously surreal, their violence is diluted.
*. I know it’s a cliché to say that less is more, particularly when it comes to horror, but in the case of human evil and violence I think it’s true. For me, the most disturbing scenes of violence and cruelty in film are often ones that are less about blood and torture and more about the representation of authentically and recognizably human evil. That’s not Miike’s thing.
*. Miike’s thing is surreal violence and excess. In his commentary on the torture scene where Suzuki is suspended by hooks and covered in boiling oil he even remarks that “the violence in this film is ridiculously excessive and totally unnecessary.” And later, watching the nipple-slicing scene, he adds that “even I thought it was a little too much.” But you can’t censor the subconscious.
*. Also in the commentary you hear Miike and Hideo Yamamoto referring to Kabukicho (the setting for some of the film) as being not realistic at all, as being like Alice in Wonderland, a place where you can’t tell if what is happening is a dream. I don’t know Japan at all so I can’t say, but you do sometimes get that impression from the odd filming techniques.
*. The apartment building, for example, is a crazy alternate reality. It only seems to have a couple of rooms that are being used. And yet I guess Takeshi and his father live there.
*. Despite the comic-book effect it has, this is still a pretty disturbing film, especially with the matter-of-fact conflation of sex and violence. But what makes it all work, at least for me, is how great it is to look at. This is what I appreciate most about Miike. The man has an eye. You can see it in almost every scene, or every shot even. When torturing Ryu Long, for example, look at how Kakihara stands surrounded in cool whites while Long is frontlit in red. Or consider this selection of scenes of various shots, none of them dramatic highlights. Look at the framing, the composition, the use of colour, the angles taken, the whole mise-en-scène. It’s beautiful in a “found poetry” kind of way: artistic but not slick or expensive or artificial.

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*. I didn’t get that the gobs of goo we see the title rising from was supposed to represent semen. Because it doesn’t look like a money shot, you know. (It looks even less like jizz after Ichi kills the twins and blasts a massive ejaculation against the wall. Yamamoto asks Miike on the commentary “What’s that white stuff?”) Nevertheless, Miike tells us that the title goo was “the real stuff,” donated mainly by Shinya Tsukamoto with contributions by various crew members. A bukkake-style blessing on the film, I suppose. This leads me to feelings of disbelief, revulsion, and cultural dislocation.
*. For the record, I don’t believe it really is semen. It certainly doesn’t look like it.

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*. Kakihara wears a cross because: (a) he’s a devout Christian; (b) it’s bling and he’s a snappy dresser; (c) it’s a symbol of torture.
*. Doing sit-ups in bed is worse than useless. There’s no support for your back.
*. Aside from the anti-realistic effects I’ve already mentioned, another part of the comic book sensibility is the emphasis on plot over character (and yes, I’m talking about pulp comic books here and not the sort of thing that gets labeled “graphica” these days). Which is a way of saying that I don’t really think this movie has a point, aside from the idea that sex and violence are near allied and that bullying has a negative effect on children, neither of which are breaking news.
*. It makes no sense at all, but I love how the yakuza leader peeks his head above his messenger’s shoulder on the screen of the laptop that is being used for the sit-down with Kakihara. Miike is a filmmaker astonishingly attentive to detail, especially given how fast he works.
*. It’s conventional to end an action movie on top of a building, or at some other high elevation like a mountain- or cliff top. That way you get to see the bad guy plummet to his death.
*. That said, I found the downbeat ending here unconventional and ambiguous, though perhaps not for a Japanese film. I’m no expert on these things, but I do find it interesting how many Japanese horror-action films from this period end with invocations of hallucination and insanity. These endings are almost like disclaimers running after the movie: You see, it was all just a bad dream.

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