My God. This isn’t cinema. This is an endurance test.
OK, that might be a little unfair. I don’t know of any other way to say it. I am not trying to sound prudish-extreme violence can be used for effective ends. But I am not sure if Ichi the Killer has effective ends. It is reminiscent of 1970s Grindhouse films-they had no plot and had to lure in the audience using a variety of scare tactics and extreme violence. There was no point to the spectacle except as a showcase of voyeurism by way of torture porn. Ichi the Killer is the same way. It is not quite a B-movie: the film is very well shot, very well put together, and the actors do give good performances. But what is it for?
The movie, surprisingly enough, is equally about an assassin named Kakihara and the titular Ichi. Kakihara is a despicable man-he appears to enjoy inflicting and receiving pain on equal measures. Ichi is a frightened young man with a cloudy past who uses special shoes that have very powerful blades in them. Ichi has attacked and slaughtered Kakihara’s boss, Anjo, and made off with 300 million yen. Kakihara takes it upon himself to track the perpetrator down. Everyone else believes the boss dead, but not Kakihara. He inflicts a variety of tortures upon his victims to find out what happened to Anjo. Along the way, Ichi and Kakihara cross paths as Kakihara attempts to track him down in order to experience some sort of ecstasy with the pain Ichi can inflict on him.
I do give credit to the film for at least being unrelenting in its subject matter. Someone wanted to make a violent film and they didn’t stop themselves, scared of the implications. This is a film that features tongues being cut off, arms pulled off (yes, pulled off), appendages sliced off, people cut in half, a rictus grin being used to bite the flesh off a hand (again, I wish I was making that particularly disturbing scene up),spikes driven through skin, nipples cut off-all that is missing is an eyeball slicing scene in order to be a cliff notes version of every piece of cinematic violence ever.
My problem is that I am not sure what it is all for. The film WANTS to be something that explores the connection between sex and violence and physical versus psychological damage. Yet it is never successful. When it wants to be serious, it becomes cartoonish and the cartoonish scenes of violence end up being far more disturbing (again, that rictus grin scene…). Why? I am not sure. The director was onto something here. And clearly he was not unwilling to go as far as he needed to. So why does it not work?
Probably because it never ends up going deeper. It is comfortable being an exploitation film. It is comfortable trying to test the limits of human experience and tolerance-how much will we watch before the contents of our stomachs come up?
Again, nothing inherently wrong with this. But the way the film is put together begs for more. Ichi and Kakihara are both (fairly) well defined characters rather than stereotypes. Ichi himself presents an interesting psychological case. He is a man whose personality has been created by his handler. He is a child by nature (in mind, not body). The only penchant for extreme violence that he possesses comes from false memories of bullying and witnessing a rape. Kakihara remains mysterious, but key bits of dialogue indicate a much deeper personality. I even found myself understanding the character and seeing potential for a good villain. We begin to understand WHY he acts the way that he does. And yet the film abandons it to showcase more gory make and digital effects.
And yet it’s for nothing. The film settles into showing the results after offering only glimpses into the process. That is not the measure of a good film. Those who like the film probably only use it as a badge of some sort of honor-they are saying that they have stronger stomachs than the rest of us. Maybe, but what of their minds?