Ichi the Killer is the movie of Frederic Wertham's nightmares. The psychologist who railed against violence in TV, movies and comic books and is responsible to this day for the notion that media violence begets real-world violence (ignoring just about every other sociological factor in the bargain) is no longer with us, but his shade hangs heavy over every heated discussion of the issue. Ichi the Killer plays like an upraised middle finger to the Frederic Werthams of the world, and to a great many other folks as well. I think I may be one of them.
I'm really at a loss. Ichi the Killer is one of the newest offerings from Takashi Miike, a disturbing and disturbingly prolific director with a slate of films that seem hell-bent on dislodging one's last meal (Fudoh, Audition, Hazard City, among many others). And yet underneath his surface shock tactics there is a very skilled and intelligent man at work. He sets up unlikely and sometimes unlikeable characters in even unlikelier situations, and then tries to see them as people and not plot devices. Sometimes this works (as it did in Audition and to a lesser extent in Fudoh); sometimes, as in Ichi, it just seems a great deal of effort for very little result.
The film stars Tadanobu Asano, easily my favorite young Japanese actor (also seen playing a cold-blooded killer in Gojoe), as Kakihara, the most notorious hitman for the Anjo yakuza. Kakihara is a sadomasochist, his face criscrossed with scars and his mouth widened on both sides by a few extra inches. I wondered idly how he manages to drink without ruining his shirt.
As the film opens, the boss of the Anjo gang has vanished from a room that's now strewn with the blood and guts of two other men. Who slaughtered them so savagely and made off with the boss? Kakihara makes it his business to find out by using tortures that are no less medieval than what must have happened to the bodyguards. Before long Kakihara has a gang member suspended from the ceiling by metal hooks — through his back — and is pushing knitting needles through the man's face and throwing boiling vegetable oil on him.
Lest we think these events take place in a total moral vacuum, Kakihara is asked to make restitution. Instead of slicing off the usual pinky finger, though, he decides to hack off his tongue. On camera. In gory closeup. And then he answers his cell phone to look for the boss (or, as the subtitles helpfully spell it out, "I'm 'onna 'ook 'oa a' boaz"). Kakihara, you see, masochist that he is, is looking for someone who can bring the ultimate pain to him — and his girlfriend, who beats on him in his basement in what looks like outtakes from Fight Club, just doesn't have enough hate in her to be the one. This killer, however, might just be that one.
The killer's identity is revealed before long, and it is as you might expect the Ichi of the title, a man with a perpetually quivering lower lip who dresses in a black rubber suit with a big fluorescent "1" on the back. He's normally a coward, but when confronted with an act of bullying, he turns into an out-of-control killing machine, slicing and dicing people into hamburger with the help of razors that pop out the backs of his shoes. At one point he comes across a pimp beating up one of his girls and bisects the man from top to bottom with one stroke — and then slices open the girl's neck for jolly as well.
Ichi (Nao Omori), you see, is a closet sadist, not comfortable with himself the way Kakihara is perfectly happy to be himself. Why? Because when he was younger he witnessed a girl being raped and instead of rushing to help her, wanted to join in the fun. He is controlled by Jijii (Shinya Tsukamoto), a mysterious little man who gives Ichi pictures of his assassination targets and tries to reinforce the parallels between those bullies and the ones who tortured the girl he (allegedly) wanted to save.
Not that any of this really matters. The movie's vest-pocket psychoanalysis is just leavening for the real meat of the story, which is the copious and colorful comic-book style killings and torturings that come every few minutes. This also includes a good deal of violence directed at women — rape, beatings, the aforementioned neck-slicing, and a truly appalling scene where a woman gets her breast sliced off. Well, almost the whole breast — as one of the other people in the scene comments afterwards, "I think you're losing your touch."
Miike probably got one thing right, now that I think about it: by making so much of the violence so ridiculously over-the-top, he's able to avoid criticism of it being hateful and despicable. It's all a joke, you see, and you're being a square if you don't get the joke. But that sort of joke violence — like when a man's face is sliced off and goes sliding down a wall, bathed in gore — coexists very badly with the scenes of women being tortured and humiliated. Does it matter that the torturers are themselves eventually killed? Are we supposed to pat ourselves on the back that they "got what they deserved?" Not in my mind. I found myself less offended by the things I was seeing than the justifications I was expected to cloak them in. (It probably goes without saying that all of this is accompanied by a good deal of Tarantinoesque tough-guy banter, the inclusion of which only makes me realize how much of Tarantino's style is a direct lift from Seijun Suzuki.)
Another attempt at counterbalancing things comes in the form of a young boy, the son of a disgraced policeman who is now one of the gang. He befriends Ichi, sort of, and in the end is betrayed by him. Miike has used children in his movies before, plopping them down in the middle of the carnage and leaving them relatively untouched — maybe as a way of admitting to the audience that there are certain things even he won't do. But all it does in this movie is throw everything else into even sharper and bleaker relief. I did not feel happy that the kid escaped unscathed at the end (that is, if I read the movie's choose-your-own-ending conclusion correctly); I felt annoyed that the director would use such a cheap tactic.
Ichi the Killer was derived from a comic which I have not read but which is part of a standing tradition of comics in Japan that are avowedly extreme without excuse. The conventional wisdom in Japan is that such comics (and by extension such movies) are not to be taken very seriously. Restricted to adults, certainly, but not to be given the kind of credence that Wertham & Co. gave it. And maybe I'm being a fuddy for being upset by it. I know, on some level, that it is simply a post-modern joke, that it is really a story about identity manipulation and so on and so forth, but in the end I simply could not justify any of this to myself. Miike clearly only cared about what was moral in the film by keeping it onscreen no longer than it is needed, and then getting back to the business of disembowling another roomful of gangsters.
Ichi played in theaters with an "R-18" rating in Japan, restricted only to adult audiences, but I have to ask myself what sense there is in calling something "adult" when there is so little of anything resembling real adulthood or maturity in it. Even its psychology feels childish and pompous, a way of presenting things that would otherwise have no reason to be shown. Earlier this year I saw Battle Royale, another movie of astounding violence, but which had a purpose and a meaning behind everything it did. Ichi the Killer wants to be in the same league, but desire isn't enough.