Based off Hideo Yamamoto’s comic, Ichi the Killer (Koroshiya 1) is a stylistic, well-made film about killing for the sake of killing, by those who love doing it with style and a sexual passion. It is a brutal film. In a country with few boundaries, none stretch those boundaries quite as far as director Miike Takeshi.
Japan is an enigma to those who see violence in entertainment as having negative social impact. One of the safest countries on Earth—with a close to zero violent crime rate—Japan at the same time creates some of the bloodiest, most brutal, vomit-inducing media available. Free from the threat of actual violence and rape, Japan has more license to play with it as fantasy. Rape films. Slaughter films. Cannibalistic gore fests. Incest-rape-slaughter-cannibal-films. Some of what passes for casual entertainment in Japan is illegal to import into the U.S.
Violence as a genre has a respected pedigree in Japan. Stretching from entrail-covered Edo period kabuki theater to classic ‘60s sex/fight flicks like Sezuki Seijin’s Elegy to Fighting (Kenka Ereji) to Miike’s lovingly crafted gore fests, the Violence genre represents an idea that seems strange to most non-Japanese; the idea that violence—especially extreme violence—can be beautiful. As long as it is full of love.
Love is the key, and the key to Ichi the Killer. At its deepest heart, this is a nihilistic romance film. Like some twisted personal add, the ultimate masochist seeks the ultimate sadist. The masochistic, yakuza killer Kakihara—the scary guy featured on the box cover—has a difficult time finding anyone who can satisfy his needs. While receiving a beating, Kakihara complains that "There's no love in your violence." To commit violence without love is like having sex without emotion, and empty physical act.
Kakihara is undoubtedly the star of the film. He is brash and beautiful. But it is the eponymous Ichi the Killer who is the true protagonist. Mentally unstable and boyish to the extreme, Ichi is a deranged assassin who wears a superhero costume with a bold Number 1 ("Ichi" means "Number 1" in Japanese) emblazoned on the back. Ichi is an almost-controllable tool of Jijii, who plays the gangs against each other for a mysterious motive. Jijii aims Ichi like a gun, then pulls the trigger. Kakihara’s deepest fantasy is to be slain by Ichi, the ultimate killer, but not before the time is right.
Ichi the Killer is a trip into a dark underworld of sadomasochism and lustful violence. Without Miike’s guiding hand, the film could easily slip into parody and irrelevance. But Miike the auteur delivers up a stunning, controlled exploration of the dark places of human nature. Places that most people would not willfully venture into. It is, without a doubt, the finest film in the genre.
by Zack Davisson