Monday, March 12, 2018

Ichi the Killer (2001)

Director: Takashi Miike
Notable Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Nao Omori, Shinya Tsukamoto, Alien Sun, Susumu Terajima, Shun Sugata, Toru Tezuka, Yoshiki Arizono, Kiyohiko Shibukawa

Takashi Miike is the kind of creative force in cinema that pushes his audience into new levels. Whether it’s through his abrasive action thrillers, his intense angle on horror, or even his odd work in other genres like children’s films, musicals, and adaptations of other intellectual properties, he never shies away from something that may not sit well with audiences. Sometimes, this renegade approach to style can be problematic for some viewers. In regards to the focus of this review, it’s this ‘take no prisoners’ approach that makes a film like Ichi the Killer an immediate cult classic. Finally getting its 4K restored release on Blu Ray in the US, Ichi the Killer is one of those films that I will always love and appreciate for its insanity, even if the film is - generally speaking - very hard to say that I enjoy. It’s not a film meant to be enjoyed in the classical sense of the word, but it’s a film that takes its relentlessly bat-shit approach to artistic levels and delivers on many of the promises it makes with its dark and outlandish style. Ichi the Killer, for all intents and purposes, is the perfect cult classic.

Needles and nihilism, the perfect mix for the most vile anti-hero of all time?
The basis of the narrative in Ichi the Killer is not all that complex. This is, in its simplest form, a film about a young gangster out to find his boss and the levels of yakuza madness that he must cut through to get there. On the other hand, it’s also a film about a killer being manipulated by outside forces and his own battle with reality. However, it’s the style and the approach that makes this film such a unique and often disturbing watch. The film utilizes its pitch-black humor, anchored by two lead characters that are truly as mad, bleak, and insane as the hellish yakuza world that they navigate, and the increasingly absurd elements of its plot to create a nightmarish haze of violence, sleaze, and bewilderment. It only gets more intense and surrealistic as it goes too. To the point that some of the violence is borderline cartoonish. Ichi the Killer never, ever turns away from the abrasive, as noted by the sheer shock of the opening sequence, and it continually drags its audience further from reality as it goes.

The key to the film’s ability to pull this off rests on the ability of the film to create a parallel and contrast between the antagonist and the protagonist. Brilliantly so, Ichi the Killer is a film where it’s two main characters are both villains. And both act as a protagonist and antagonist to one another. The famous face fo the film, Kakihara played with lavish intensity by Asano, is easily the most vile character in the film and is initially introduced as the protagonist. He almost exists as a black hole character, consuming all around him. The reactions that powerful yakuza characters have to his insanity, his detachment from anything remotely resembling morality, only makes an audience fear him more. In juxtaposition, the killer of the film, the titular Ichi, is portrayed as sad and broken, but both characters are unable to control their own violent and dark tendencies. Their lives are meant to cross and it’s like watching two immensely devastating forces on a path to collision. It’s a fascinating approach to handling the usual tropes of any thriller and it remains the best part of what Ichi the Killer has to offer.

Let the bodies hit the floor, I suppose.
From this point, it’s the execution of the film that has to carry the rest of the weight. Visually, director Takashi Miike delivers a diverse blend of styles that ranges from sheer exploitation to dramatic tone building and it will jack knife into some music video stylistic choices just for shits and giggles. Since the film is based on a manga, it also seemingly embraces those tones too (although I have yet to read the manga myself). The performances are all impressively ranged, from subtle to gloriously over-the-top, and they match the pace and tone of the rest of the film. For this latest release, the restoration does give the film an occasionally dated aura because it looks so much sharper and more detailed than my previous copy, particularly when it comes to the CGI, but it’s never enough to truly detract from the film itself since the cartoonish and almost surrealistic approach is a large part of its layers as a piece of art.

Ichi the Killer remains a film that is often hard to stomach, depicting violence and misconduct in so many forms. Realistic brutality, cartoonish gore shed, and emotional disturbing concepts are all game in the film and audiences will either be able to consume it and look beyond it to its messages and layers or completely disregard the film. Yet, it’s easy to see that there is a message underneath it all. The brilliance of its surrealistic tones, the ranged performances, and immaculate pacing are core indications to showcase a film that’s far more than just its surface level abrasions and shock value.

This is why Ichi the Killer deserves this latest Blu Ray release. This is why it’s a cult classic. This is why it is so effective. Ichi the Killer and Takashi Miike have a lot to say, but it’s up to the audience to decide what that message represents.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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