One of eight films Takashi Miike made in 2001, this Japanese cult classic follows a yakuza gang whose boss goes missing; for most of us a cause for celebration, but sadomasochistic enforcer Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano) is intent on tracking him down, like the idiots at school who’d insist on going to get a teacher when miraculously none have shown up.
Still apparently banned in three countries, Ichi the Killer‘s gory reputation precedes it, but this film is all about subverting expectations. Just as his boss’ killer Ichi (Nao Ohmori) doesn’t match the picture in Kakihara’s head, the movie consistently surprises with its psychological layers and bizarre sense of humour. For a film whose mutilation scenes make Oldboy look like About a Boy, Ichi is a surprisingly well-rounded slice of extreme Asian cinema.
Like Oldboy it’s a swirling vortex of violence and manipulation, equally visceral and psychological. Stylistically however it feels closer to the live-action anime vibe of The Matrix, all rooftops and body horror; Akira made flesh. If that sounds like a lot to take in, that’s because there is. This is a mind-boggling, discombobulating affair that digs its hooks into your skin and doesn’t let go.
Miike adapted another manga this year with Blade of the Immortal, but this is different in that there’s an actual story; a complex thriller plot resembling an ultra-violent version of Danny Boyle’s Trance. Not only does it explore the broken psyches of sadistic sociopaths, which is interesting up to a point, this is punctuated by moments of tragedy and a couple of emotionally relatable characters who appear to have simply wound up in the wrong job. Or “done a David Davis” as it’s now known.
Which brings us to the torture scenes. These are jaw-droppingly, flesh-tearingly well executed, with a level of self-consciousness that David Davis could only dream of while someone’s trying to brief him. Even the more dated computer effects add to the film’s warped sense of absurdity. This bizarre self-parody provides a valuable amount of distance without becoming distracting or a joke like Deadpool.
It’s through this absurdity that the film genuinely explores themes of manipulation and bullying. Extreme cinema is also good at illuminating sub-cultures. Just as American Mary shone a surgical light on the underground world of body modification, Ichi is interested in sadomasochism in a manner reminiscent of Hellraiser, from which Miike plucks some of this film’s most indelible images.
Kakihara is essentially a Cenobite crossed with the Joker, complete with Chelsea smile and matching purple suit, and Asano is terrifying in the role. Ohmori is suitably strange as the title character, while Paulyn Sun impresses as bilingual prostitute Karen. All of which adds up to one of the weirdest and greatest thrillers ever made, whose giddy combination of twisted humour, hardcore gore and general mind-fuckery makes it side-splitting in every conceivable way. And several inconceivable ways.