Ichi The Killer (2001), or What Is It With The Japanese And Their Trippy Movies?

30 06 2009

Takashi Miike is a good director. He makes movies the way he feels they should be made. He has his own vision, a trait that more directors need. He’s got style in spades. And he has oodles of talent, the most important component with pulling a film off. So why do his movies make me feel like cutting my face off with piano wire? It’s hard to explain. I think it might be a matter of cohesiveness.He likes to bend genres a lot, to the point that it just becomes an amalgam of off-jokes, unbelievably gruesome death scenes, and brutal criminal monologues. If anybody remembers my review for Sukiyaki Western: Django, you’ll know that while Miike made some interesting stylistic choices I liked, he made some serious blunders that tarnished the film for me (Japanese people speaking English, anyone?) Today’s film, Ichi The Killer, based off the delightful and family-friendly mangas, makes some of the same mistakes that film does, but it ends up succeeding in being a more cohesive work than Sukiyaki ever was.

The plot is so Ka-Flooey! that I couldn’t tell you the whole thing in five paragraphs, let alone one (you notice the trailer above doesn’t even bother to explain it?), but the basic gist is your typical crime drama. There is some money missing (300 million yen, or $47) from the office of a murdered crime boss, and a psycho named Kakahari, an EXTREME sadomasochist, is on the trail of his boss’s murderer and the missing cash. After torturing a few people, he finds a trail that leads to a mysterious man named Jiiji and his unstoppable assassin known only as Ichi, who is allegedly one of the most brutal killers imaginable. Kakahari is taken with the idea of a man that could bring him ultimate pain, so he makes it his own personal mission to find these two and confront them. Who is Ichi? Why does he kill in such a brutal and disturbing fashion? Why does he kill at all?

This is all your usual crime film fare with a few twisted details. The criminals are all ballooned out of proportion to be mentally disturbed caricatures. With all the psychos running around, I didn’t know whether the movie took place in Japan or Gotham City! Seriously, we have the sadomasochist, the super-killer Ichi, his fucked-up boss, a lot of the stylized Yakuza members; it becomes a madhouse within 30 minutes! If you like your villains full of cartoonish verve and your anti-heroes zany and unpredictable, this might not be such a bad movie for you. You’ll never find yourself bored anyways!

The pacing and the tone could be a little more consistent. We go from stilted dialog scenes to extended torture scenes to frantic running and jumping to POV shots within the span of five minutes! It’s relentlessly atonal! I have tried and tried to figure out what Miike is trying to convey with his camera besides corn syrup blood and disemboweled mannequins, but it eludes me. Perhaps there is something, because he can truly have a voice with an image when he wants, but here and in Sukiyaki he chooses the most equivocated way of expressing himself as a director. Maybe I’m thinking too much about this, but when you’re invited to direct an episode of a show called MASTERS OF HORROR, I guess I just figure you have something to say.

But the film succeeds where the Eastern-Western didn’t by keeping things tight. For the nutty story they’re trying to tell, it’s actually pretty succinct. There are few if any wasted scenes, and when they’re good, they’re REALLY good. I felt pretty riveted during the Katahari torture scenes. He can keep the tension on a razor’s edge, teetering from one second to the next. The character development is also a strong point here. Although the characters are hyper-ridiculous and villainous, they all have multiple dimensions. The scenes featuring the mysterious Ichi and his “problem” are also intriguing, and leave the audience with something akin to actual concern for somebody in this bloody mess of a film.

It’s not an instant classic by any means, but Ichi The Killer works. It’s a guts-painted odyssey through a Japanese criminal underworld that only film directors imagine exist. Miike is and will always be the star of any movie he makes, like any talented director, but he makes strides to change that a little bit by making characters that have different angles to choose from, even if they still have no resemblance to real human beings. It’s not for everyone, especially those with weak constitutions, but for those who can handle a little splatter and gore, this is a crime film for the 21st century. It’s a unique vision that gets my thumbs (slightly) up, with 7 inflated currencies out of 10. Kampai!!!

Tomorrow we see Charlton Heston as a Hispanic (!!!!!!!!!) in Touch of Evil!

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