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Ichi the Killer (Takashi Miike) 2002
It’s hardly a subtle opening, but it’s a brilliant one, and the film’s inventiveness rarely ceases to amaze. Every time Miike pushes us farther than we thought we could go, it ratchets it up a level by either growing even more violent, or by disarming our shock with a bit of morbid humor. For example, the opening salvo described above is followed by an exchange of dialogue in which a group of men talk about having to “mop up”. It’s twisted, sophomoric stuff to be sure, but it’s willing to take its fascination with violence and sex farther than most films that I can think of. Miike’s extremism evokes the great gore classics, such as Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive or the mother of all bloody Hong Kong flicks, Riki-Oh. By comparison, his Audition, which had audiences fleeing from the theater or squirming in their seats, is a Julia Roberts movie.
That Miike so consistently goes for the jugular makes the movie’s numerous arterial sprays lack a bit of impact by the film’s end. For me, the most disturbing moment in the film was a beating that took place just off screen (though it was troubling more because it was perpetrated by the closest thing the film had to a moral center up to that point than because it was violent.) It’s an exploitation film through and through, so it’s a bit silly to complain about its lack of justification, but that it sneaks a tiny bit in there made me want for more. The implication of the shocking title card is that we’re all getting off on violence like the voyeur that made that splashy opening possible. There’s the suggestion that videogame and film violence has desensitized and hypnotized us, and that brutality has become the fodder for our pleasure. That the disembowelments are so often played for laughs here is at once the film’s social comment and its raison d’erte. The closest the film comes to underlining that message is when a young boy offering food to a bird is wounded by the creature, but continues to extend his hand. There remains the question of whether the ends justify the means, however. Surely, Miike seems to present the film’s sadism obsessed Yakuza with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, but he also obviously gets off on killing them in the most inventive ways possible, and that grows a little overbearing several times throughout the film.
There’s an absolute laundry list of tortures on display here (think hot grease, involuntary piercing, severed nipples, several rapes, complete vivisection, and rooms so filled with blood that it seems to rain from the ceiling) under the pretenses of a plot that follows a group of gangsters searching for their kidnapped boss. The film impressively uses CGI effects to transform the bodies of its actors’ flesh into something more malleable. Perhaps more disturbing than the abundance of characters wishing to dole out such abuse, though, are the few who actively seek it. Much of what we see is horrible but it’s also undeniably exceedingly clever. If there’s not necessarily a total continuity between scenes, there is an admirable amount of excitement carried between them. It’s rare that the maiming grows rote here. For all of the tonal shifts that we’re put through, it’s amazing that so many of them stick. If the moralizing contained in the movie can literally be boiled down to “Killing’s not nice,” that’s got to be the problem of someone other than Miike.