Back Comments (1) Share:
Facebook Button
Lauded and loathed in apparently equal measure, prolific Nippon director Takashi Miike continues to be the scourge of censors almost everywhere. ‘Barf bags’ have been around since the self-styled king of 60’s schlock William Castle but nowhere are they more needed than in this film, not due to some celluloid slashings but because there are delirious and yet deeply disturbing ideas at work here...

Feature


Anjo, leader of a Shinjuku yakuza crime syndicate, has disappeared. Enter the ultra-loyal but dangerously deranged deputy Kakihara (Asano); an unhinged uber-masochist of a man with a set of scarred facial features, a preference for painful piercings and a sartorial sense on the edge of the outrageous. Kakihara vows to secure the safe return of his boss and ruthlessly sets about high ranking members of affiliated gangs in the syndicate, spirited on by the shady insider information provided by an unusual Chinese immigrant, Jiji (Tsukamoto).

Ichi The Killer
After executing his investigation with a little too much zeal (involving a respected elder in the syndicate, a dozen meat hooks, other assorted sharp instruments and a lot of boiling oil) Kakihara must pay penance (purposefully bisecting his own tongue with a sword) and is expelled from the organisation. Taking the remnants of his crew, Kakihara sets up his own chapter, vowing to find Jiji, who has by now vanished, and the mysterious figure known only as ‘Ichi’, who he feels is responsible for the whole affair.

In fact, out of Kakihara’s reach even in the Kabuki-cho underworld, Jiji has his own grand design and goads the outwardly mild-mannered Ichi (Nao Omori) into gangster slicing and dicing action utilising a blade hidden in the heel of his hi-tech shoe. Throw in the erratic actions of Anjo’s former moll Karen (Alien Sun) and the stage is set for a showdown that’ll prove to be quite some carve up…

Arriving in a storm of publicity following an admittedly impressive showing at the Cannes film festival, Ichi the Killer is probably better known in the UK by its scurrilous reputation (cue the predictable hysteria from self-appointed moral guardians at the Daily Mail) rather than by people who have actually seen it. The BBFC excised a whole three minutes, adding further fuel to the fire. The DVD case even gleefully supplies a warning that the film ‘Contains Scenes of an Explicit Nature’, just in case some short-sighted patron in a shop picks up the wrong movie.

Unlike exploitation material masquerading as a movie, and I Spit On Your Grave is a prime example, this is one film that does exactly what it says on the tin. It is shocking, violent and contain enough blood n’ guts to keep a half-decent abattoir in business for some time. Yet, for all that, this is a frequently funny film with fantastic set design, decadent costumes and an imaginative use of sound. The plot, what there is of it based on the Hideo Yamamoto’s manga, is a device to play off the ultimate masochist against the ultimate sadist, employing a fair few jolts along the way. In sacrificing the story to this end, and in attempting to spring surprise after increasingly bizarre surprise, Miike is constantly making the audience aware that they are watching a movie.

On the one hand, this gives the director a very real freedom to explore taboo subjects and insert ultra-violence to render A Clockwork Orange as a limp distant precedent. On the other, this prevents the movie from being truly involving as set-piece after set-piece reinforces the idea that this is an experience more than anything else.

This is where the BBFC comes in; the episodic structure permits, with some ease, certain scenes to be taken out of context. As Miike goes for the max in exploring pain as a form of pleasure and pleasure being painful, sexual violence towards women and the ‘permissive rape’ myth come into play. Chances are if you’ve not seen the uncut Japanese or Dutch versions, this U.K. print is strong enough for just about anyone. In truncating the opening rape sequence (where Ichi can only achieve sexual satisfaction in the voyeuristic witnessing of a willingly violated victim) and removing the sexual torture of a female prisoner in another, the cartoonish aspects of the ultra-violence become much more greatly pronounced.

Ichi The Killer
In some ways, this actually serves Miike’s intentions better, as did the reframing of the Susan George rape sequence in the recently certificated print of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. With so much footage gone, it’s undeniable that the original presentation has a different patina to this UK version; this is not to imply that uncut is always better as a little restraint can sometimes go a long way. While I am against censorship in so much as it interferes with an artist’s right to expression, there comes a point where on screen excess is laboured in endeavouring to justify its inclusion and therefore the BBFC’s tinkering with Ichi the Killer may be unwelcome but not unwarranted.

None of which should overshadow fine performances from Sun, Tsukamoto and, in particular, Asano nor the fact that decent CGI and animatronic effects were wrung out of a total budget of just $1.4 million. Miike continues to amaze, impress and infuriate with a perceptive eye and ear to which schlock jock directors can only longingly aspire.

Video


In providing a double disc presentation, Premier Asia have once again managed to maximise the bitrate for the transfer; with the overpowering set colour schemes and exorbitant costumes (not to mention the fountains of blood and body parts that shower all involved at several points during proceedings) this is absolutely necessary! Primary colours are thick and strong but contrast levels are outstanding, as evidenced by Kakihara’s purple sequined suit, with flesh tones crisp and clear from among the bountiful claret.

Aside from the events unfolding on screen, the transfer has plenty to cope with as Miike tinkers with heavy blue gauze filters, slow-mo, speeded up film sequences, video sequences and pseudo-digital photography. Elements of grain and macro-blocking are sometimes evident in these processed sequences although these are not flaws of the transfer per se, rather an effect of the impression that Miike wishes to present in denoting how technology puts distance between human characters.

Subtitles are of the highest order. In a legible off-white font with a dark outline, they’re always easy to read against the carnage in the background and manage to capture the idioms of gangster language very well.

Audio


The Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 track is capably exploited. Every punch and kick provokes a thumping response from the subwoofer, boiling hot oil applied to skin really sizzles and the inevitable bodily penetrations by sharp instruments make for some truly sickening squelching sounds. Allied to this, it’s an active surround offering with proficient channel separation and dialogue that is always clear from the centre speaker.

Miike’s use of non-diegetic sound in Ichi the Killer is an integral part of its brooding atmosphere and the music employed comes to the fore. One particular motif bookends each Ichi instigated carve up, the rumbling drums rising and rolling from the rear channels to the front of the soundstage as an example of the depth of attention allocated for the film’s sound design.

Extras


Kicking off on the special features selection, and the only piece to accompany the film on the first disc, is another contribution from the seemingly indefatigable Bey Logan who is joined for this audio commentary by co-producer Elliot Tong and leading lady Alien Sun. This is a great deal more anecdotal than Logan’s traditional frantic fact-filled recordings but it’s lively as the three EMG (Emperor Media Group) alumni trade on-set stories, behind the scenes barbs (find out why the reason for the name change from Paulyn to ‘Alien’!) and informal analysis.

Ichi The Killer
Those hoping for a less laidback approach to breaking down the mischievous narrative (especially the ending) may be mite disappointed; in addition some trimming has been executed as the trio are obviously watching Miike’s entirely uncut print, dropping a couple of references to material which has been removed from this presentation. That stated, it is a fun commentary (Alien Sun’s Singapore drawl is to die for!) which manages debunk some myths yet only to throw up more to preserve the mystique enshrouding the maverick Miike.

Onto disc two and the first heading of ‘Interview Gallery’ should be the earliest port of call. Split into four sections, the longest of the quartet, running at a healthy thirty-two minutes, is the Takashi Miike interview. The director expounds on his preference for eclectic casting choices (including directors as actors), his on-set demeanour in motivating each member of his crew and his view on diminishing distance between Manga and film.

Frustratingly true to form, Miike is consciously vague when addressing directly the meaning of his film, once again insisting that every viewer should look for his or her own interpretation of what the cinematic incarnation of Ichi represents. The enigmatic director is keen to illustrate that he doesn’t see the need to separate love, sex, violence and comedy into discriminate genre movies and so perhaps this film is his most calculatingly outlandish attempt to combine all of these elements and more.

The Tadanobu Asano interview is an opportunity to sample the movie’s leading man, at least to J-rock fans, in more familiar guise. For those unused to the softly spoken centre of Japanese Beckham-style media scrutiny, the reticent and exceedingly humble figure behind Kakihara may come as something of a shock. Overly interspersed with clips from the movie, the nine minutes feel somewhat fleshed out but Asano makes his few words count.

At a slightly longer fourteen minutes, the Shinya Tsukamoto interview is an interesting insight to a director moving from orchestrating events from behind a camera to stepping out in front of one to perform according to someone else’s unique vision. As a good actor but certainly not a professional one, the man who helmed the two Tetsuo movies illustrates the level of concentration required with Miike often refusing to go beyond three takes for any shot and the difficulty in preparing for his role of Jiji which had no back-story.

The last piece in the section of is an Alien Sun interview in which the attractive actress, extraordinarily long of limb and loud of laugh, explains the origin of her character’s ready diffusion of Japanese, English, Cantonese and Mandarin. Sun, like the three previously, refers to the Suzuki torture sequence in which Susumu Terashima, a regular performer in Takeshi Kitano’s movies, had to endure ten hours of make followed by a twelve hour shoot suspended by hooks and encased in an all-consuming prosthetic skin which prevented him from any bathroom breaks for almost two days!

What is clear is how Miike allows, and actively encourages, each of his actors to invest him/herself in the appropriate role. Having seen the film it’s impossible to imagine anyone else as Kakihara, Jiji or Karen yet Asano, Tsukamoto and Sun look and even sound so different from their respective alter egos.

Ichi The Killer
Under the second heading of ‘Behind the Scenes’ is a selection of seven key sequences termed ‘Kaleidoscope Of Horrors’, ‘Aftermath’, ‘Captive View’, ‘Hanging Around’, ‘Tongue-tied & Twisted, Rooftop Killer’ and finally ‘Free-faller’. Choosing the commodious option will produce a main window detailing off-camera action involving the relevant cast and crew while the scene in question plays within an inset so as to facilitate a side by side comparison between the construction and the finished article.

This style of feature makes a refreshing change from the usual spoon fed style of a ‘Making of’ and allows the viewer to form his or her own interpretations of the on-set atmosphere and how the intensely focused Miike galvanises his crew into creating the results that he wants.

Under the third heading of ‘Promotional Archive’ are five sub-sections. These open with an Electronic Press Kit which contains a six minute interview with Takashi Miike (excerpts culled from the longer version in the interview gallery) and a ‘Behind the Scenes/Outtakes Reel’ featuring footage from the Suzuki torture, Kakihara’s tongue slicing sacrifice and the preparation of Ichi’s massacre of the yakuza by using actual animal intestines.

A selection of three ‘Photo Galleries’ is also here. The forty ‘Production Stills’ are really just cropped images from the movie print, the ‘Behind Scenes & Campaign Artwork’ has fourteen frames of just what you might expect and, in what seems like a plug for the haute couture boutiques of Hong Kong, the oddly included ‘Alien Sun Glamour Gallery’ is also here. It’s undeniable that the former Miss Singapore in elaborate states of undress is easy on the eye of any man with a pulse but seeing as the film objectifies the female form while putting physical punishment and sexual pleasure uncomfortably close together it’s a bit of a bizarre addition.

In the title specific ‘Trailers’ option, there’s an original theatrical trailer in Japanese (with English subtitles) that has a raw and fresh Manga-like feel whereas the UK promotional trailer has a far slicker dialogue-free music video style appeal set to a wonderful piece of orchestral music that doesn’t seem to be in the actual film at all.

The ‘Premier Asia Showcase’ is a six minute showreel, accompanied by a suitably hyperbolic voiceover, highlighting clips from forthcoming releases; for Korean cinema buffs, snippets of the long awaited R2 releases of Champion, Volcano High and My Wife Is A Gangster can be glimpsed.

Under ‘Further Attractions’ one may find more information on Premier Asia releases Musa, Bang Rajan and Bichunmoo. The same is available for the Hong Kong Legends output of The Killer, Story Of Ricky and Naked Killer.

Last, but not least, under the last heading of ‘Information Library’ may be found text based biographies and filmographies for Miike, Asano and Tsukamoto. This being a Premier Asia disc, thorough histories and not a little insight are provided to put other releases’ scant offerings to shame.

Ichi The Killer

Overall


Not as focused as Audition or Visitor Q but equally as funny, if that should be the word, as Happiness Of The Katakuris, it’s a movie to keep Miike hot on the heels of Takeshi Kitano as Japan’s premier directing export. Presented on another excellent Premier Asia double disc set with extras a cut above the rest yet forcefully divested of a couple of its most controversial scenes, Ichi the Killer preserves its’ power as an extreme experience that will not suit every viewer.


Links: