What A Bloody Mess Part 2: Takashi Miike’s Ichi The Killer

Greetings loved ones! Liu is the name, and views are my game.

And welcome to the second installment in the What A Bloody Mess series.

There are some movies out there that are so vile, so depraved, so unspeakably awful, that they actually transcend the realm of bad taste and, in the eyes of certain critics, become worth watching. No, I’m not talking about Flowers Of Flesh And Blood or The Human Centipede: Full Sequence. I’m referring to films such as Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and, of course, Takashi Miike’s Ichi The Killer. These movies not only sickened audiences to the point of vomiting, walking out and, in the case of Ichi The Killer, unconsciousness, they also got people praising their directors’ “artistic vision” and critics raving about their “social, cultural and political relevance.” Why? Well, at one point in the not to distant past, I would have said, “I have no idea,” or else, “as a means of self-defense.” I used to think that critics and cinephiles made cult classics out of these movies because they just didn’t want to believe that someone would put the time, money, and dare I say, effort, into making something so profoundly twisted. Now, however, I’m not so sure I can stand by that previous assertion. Yes, these movies are disgusting in every sense of the word, but the fact remains, some of these films were actually made with a specific social and/or political agenda in mind. A Clockwork Orange, for example, is a story about freedom, the freedom to do and think as we please, and how society strives to limit that freedom by forcing us all to conform to a certain standard of behavior. As for the others, they might not necessarily have been made with a specific message in mind, but they are just vague, and over the top enough, to have the potential to be profound. Case and point; Ichi The Killer.

This 2001 Japanese film, described by some as horror, and by others as old school thriller, is notorious amongst moviegoers, has raised widespread controversy, and is banned outright in several countries, due to its high impact violence and graphic depictions of cruelty. When it was first released internationally, the Norwegian Media Authority classified it as Rejected and banned it due to “high impact violence and cruelty.” It’s been banned outright in Malaysia since its distribution in 2001, and the uncut version is unavailable in Germany. Basically, it is so, so violent, that practically no government is willing to let its citizens watch it.

And yet, despite all the negative backlash that the film garnered due to its excessive bloodshed, Ichi’s general critical reception was quite warm. The movie currently holds a 64% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 72% approval rating on IMDb. Most critics who’ve managed to sit through the whole thing agree on two points: 1) that it’s way, way, way too violent, and 2) that it’s reasonably well made. And you know what? I would tend to agree with them. The intense, acid soundtrack lends itself well to the visuals, the dialogue is natural sounding, the performances are decent (for a Japanese film, that is), and the intricate plot is reasonably well developed. Some critics, like the Dutch journalist and author, Tom Mae, have gone even further, and suggested that the film is actually a sophisticated commentary on violence, and how the media plays a role in our perception of it. “It’s a paradox,” he writes, “but Ichi the Killer, a film that sets new boundaries in the portrayal of violence and bloodshed, takes a strongly critical stance towards the portrayal and the consumption of the violent image. However, it does so without ever taking a moral stance towards either the portrayal or the consumption, thus circumventing any accusations of hypocrisy on the part of the director. Miike does not moralise or chastise, but provokes the audience into questioning their own attitudes towards viewing images of violence. He steers them into a direction but leaves it up to them to draw their own conclusion.”

When I first read Mae’s review, I thought it was complete rubbish. I mean really. A violent movie that’s critical of violence? Who’s ever heard of such a thing? Now, however, having seen the film for myself, I can almost believe him. ALMOST. Sure, the movie shows us all different kinds of violence, ranging from the intense and brutal (a prostitute being beaten up and raped by her John), to the absurd and humorous (a pigeon crapping on the windshield of a woman’s car, causing her to crash into a guy), and it was interesting to see how I reacted to each of those images. But I never got the sense that Miike was challenging me to question my own tolerance or acceptance of them. I’ve seen plenty of his other pictures, and take it from me, Ichi is just a collection of his usual cinematic fingerprints on steroids. He’s made movies about the Yakuza before. He’s made movies about prostitutes. He’s made movies that involve torture and, yes, he’s also made movies that have rape in them. The only thing that stands out about Ichi is that, in the past, he’s tried to soften his pictures–make them more approachable to the public. Here, he just threw caution to the wind and made the kind of no holds barred, in-your-face intense violent movie that he’s always wanted to do. Which is sad, if you ask me. See, Ichi The Killer is not a sophisticated commentary on violence or the media or whatever else writers like Tom Mae might assert. But it had the potential to be one, and that, dear friends, is what makes up the back bone of my argument in this latest addition to the What A Bloody Mess series.

See, Ichi The Killer is a violent movie, and in more ways than just showing violent images. Every single thing that a character says or does in this film is aggressive or threatening in some way. Either they’re shouting at each other at the top of their lungs, which is a form of violent communication, or else their talking about violence. For example, one minor character, Karen, is introduced to the audience in a scene where she tells a client of hers about a time she strangled her neighbor’s dog. Similarly, the titular character, Ichi, is first shown to us in a scene where his boss brandishes a knife in front of him and orders him to kill himself for serving the wrong drinks. So, even when nobody’s getting mauled on screen, there’s no escape from the brutality in this movie.

Now, usually, when a director is this consistently over the top in his or her film, there’s a reason. If the film in question is a comedy, like Tom Hanks’ The Burbs, the constant absurdity lets us know that we’re not supposed to take the movie seriously and, therefore, think of the whole thing as just one big joke. Similarly, when a certain character or series of events is consistently over-the-top in a drama film, like in Rosewood or To Kill A Mockingbird, we know straight away what the movie’s underlying message is. With Ichi, though, which lies somewhere between comedy and drama, horror and thriller, its difficult to say what Miike’s intention was by making it unrelentingly bloody and aggressive. Maybe he’s trying to say that we shouldn’t take this movie seriously, that, in its own sick way, Ichi The Killer is one big joke. Maybe he is, as Tom Mae suggested, trying to provoke us into reconsidering the way we look at violence by giving us no rest bit from it. But, honestly, I don’t think either is what he had in mind. As I’ve said before, he’s made similar, less violent movies in the past. In all likelihood, he simply made Ichi The Killer unnecessarily aggressive as a means of compensating for all the other times that he couldn’t make his films as bloody as he wanted. Which doesn’t make sense, if you read the film’s source material.

Yeah, I should probably have mentioned, Ichi The Killer was originally a manga series written by Hideo Yamamoto. While the graphic novels are every bit as violent as their screen adaptation, they do possess a certain amount of heart and depth that the movie lacks. In the manga series, Ichi, a timid but skilled martial artist, is manipulated by a scheming old geezer named Jiji to assassinate key Yakuza bosses in the hopes of raising turmoil and making money in the Tokyo underworld. Jiji convinces Ichi to do what he says by filling the latter’s head with lies about his childhood. According to Jiji, Ichi was severely bullied in school, and was a helpless witness to a rape of a fellow classmate named Tachibana. Jiji manages to convince Ichi to kill the people he wants him to by stating that they are the bullies that hurt him and raped the girl. In reality, there was no rape and ichi was never bullied, but, as you can imagine, Jiji doesn’t bother to tell him that. While we’re shown, quite extensively, the kind of carnage that Ichi can create, we also get a look at his gentler, more sympathetic side. He acts as both a mentor and father figure to a young boy from his dojo, and appears to have real feelings for Sheila, the prostitute he frequents. In the movie, however, Ichi plays a significantly smaller role, and is considerably less likable. Don’t believe me? Well, why don’t I show you. First of all, the guy who’s face is on all the movie’s advertisements is not Ichi. He’s Kakihara, a yakuza enforcer who’s on the lookout for the person who killed his boss. Ichi doesn’t show up until we’re about 20 minutes in. Second, the film’s Ichi is less of a sympathetic, emotionally scarred man that you want to see prevail, and more of a sadistic, seriously terrifying psychopath. He’s still shy and cowardly, and Jiji still convinces him to do what he says by lying to him about his past, but Ichi doesn’t seem to mind the fact that he was bullied or that he watched a girl get raped. In fact, in one scene where he’s talking to Jiji about the event, and Jiji asks him if he wanted to help Tachibana, Ichi replies, “Nope. I just wanted to rape her too.” Wow! Way to suck any hope for relate or likability out of your titular character, Miike. Similarly, both the manga and the movie show Ichi killing Sheila’s abusive pimp, and then her as well. The two media, however, present these events in drastically different manners. In the manga, Ichi is shown killing the pimp as a means of avenging Sheila, and he only regretfully kills his love when he remembers Jiji’s orders to not let anyone see him. In the movie, by contrast, Ichi is seen spying on the pimp as he is beating the living shit out of her, and only gets involved when the pimp catches him and slaps him around a bit. Then, when Ichi does kill the pimp, he turns to Sheila, smiles, and says, “From now on, I’ll be the one that beats you up.” He ends up killing her because she attempts to defend herself, and he doesn’t appear to mind doing so in the least. As you can see, movie Ichi is not exactly the nicest guy in town.

But what, you might be wondering, do all these differences between the manga and the movie really add up to? Do they matter in the long run? After all, it’s an adaptation. You’ve got to make changes, right? Yes you do, but, generally, when you make changes, they’re ones that make the plot or characters more interesting, or else more compatible with the limitations of a motion picture. Having Ichi be both less important and less sympathetic does neither of these, which is why the movie flops in my mind. See, in the manga, even though the story was violent, you were willing to keep reading it because you had this rakish, off-beat protagonist to go back to. Sure he was seriously messed up, but his heart was still in the right place, and that made the excessive murder and torture easier to get through, because you wanted to see this sympathetic person prevail. In the movie, there’s just nothing likable about Ichi, and so, with no one to sympathize or relate to, you don’t feel obliged to finish it.

But what would have helped the film even more than making Ichi halfway decent, in my mind, would have been having him find out that everything Jiji told him was a lie. This would open up the possibility for an internal analysis, on Ichi’s part, of his own violent behavior, and by extension, the violent behavior of all. Why do we see certain acts of violence as more justified, or else less heinous , than others? Does the fact that the person we’re hurting is “bad”–they’re a bully, a rapist, a murderer–really excuse the fact that we are hurting someone else? This kind of internal dialogue would have been very interesting to watch, and even if we never saw Ichi act on it, this whole set up would make the confusing ending scene more comprehensible. I should probably explain, the film ends with a shot of an unknown corpse, most likely Jiji’s, hanging from a tree while a group of school children look on. None of the characters in this scene are mentioned earlier in the movie, and so most critics are uncertain as to what it means. If, however, Miike had had Ichi find out that everything Jiji told him about his past was false, it would help narrow down the number of possible readings. Perhaps the corpse is Jiji’s, and Ichi put it there after killing the former for lying to him. Or perhaps its Ichi’s dead body that we’re looking at, and he killed himself as an act of atonement for his past deeds. Either way, the “Ichi finds out” set up would make the film as a whole much more interesting to watch, and give it a certain level of depth that it does not, at present, possess.

So, is Ichi The Killer actually an astute analysis of society’s consumption and perception of the violent image? Not really. But if the director and screenwriter had made the titular character more important and more sympathetic, and had him undergo a thorough self analysis, it might have been.

And that, loved ones, is all I have to say about that. Hope you enjoyed my latest essay, and I’ll see you all soon.

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