Ichi The Killer deals predominantly with the theme of sadism, but in a fun way! This classic from Takashi Miike is extremely violent, but on the whole it is akin to reading a graphic novel more than watching extreme cinema, perhaps telling of its origins in Manga.
Produced around the beginning of the boom period for Asian Cinema (especially, at the time, for Japanese Cinema) the basis of the plot can be condensed down to the following: one gang of Yakuza has their boss kidnapped and will stop at nothing to get him back. Of course being Japanese the film has subplots, bizarre character arcs and a small measure of surrealism thrown into the mix.
At the forefront of the story is Kakihara, leading the charge to find his estranged boss. He does so with an enthusiasm fuelled by his hyper-defined sense of sadism – he has turned the enjoyment of other peoples suffering into an art form. The calm relish with which he absorbs as pleasure the pain he inflicts verges on an addiction.
Kakihara is not without his honour, and is not afraid to embrace the masochism antithesis of his love of sadism. Having tortured the wrong individual for information (a prolonged scene which involves giant fishing hooks and ladles of boiling oil) he volunteers to permanently remove his own ability to indulge his love of sweet food – and does so, graphically – with a sword.
Eventually the titular Ichi enters the fray – murdering the Yakuza as he goes along. He is a repressed, unassuming character which conceals his psychotic mind, martial arts prowess and customised shoes with blades in them! The film twists and coils around bizarre and horrendous scenes towards the final showdown between the sadistic Kakihara and Ichi The Killer!
There can be no doubt that the violence in Ichi The Killer is for the most part cartoonish, albeit graphic and horrific. However Miike does not let the viewer off that easily. There are scenes of disturbing brutality which brings the shock aspect of the film into sharp focus. Even from the very beginning a woman being beaten and abused forces the viewer to question why some portrayals of violence will illicit disgusted laughter – and others a cold, shocked silence.
Perhaps this is commentary on modern society, and if it is specifically on Japanese society it will be difficult for the Western audience to fully comprehend – certainly there were parts of the film that seemed to contain aspects that were elusive. However, it was clear that the influence of sex and violence on society were strong messages – especially the sadism of Kakihara speaking of the enjoyment of violence. Also interesting is the character of Karen – not only given a Western name but also random parts of her dialogue were in English, clearly speaking of the influence (Miike does not suggest for good or for bad) of Western culture and it’s infiltration of Japanese society.
When compared to Takashi Miike’s other offerings, Ichi The Killer is the most enjoyable and satisfying. It contains elements of the bizarre seen in Visitor Q and the sadism in the pay-off in Audition – but blended in a more standard narrative format which is well paced and entertaining. Ichi The Killer is a modern classic, not just of Asian Cinema, but a true cinematic great which will continue to be referenced for its originality and accomplishment for decades to come.