Takashi Miike’s “Ichi the Killer” Is An Excessive Plunge Into the World of the Yakuza


Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal (2017) — the director’s one hundredth movie — premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last spring. It opened here last week, making Blade that rare Miike joint with an actual U.S. theatrical release. Miike, who is 57, has been directing films for twenty-odd years now, and it’s obligatory for critics — this one included — to comment on how prolific he is. His vast résumé contains a pungent potpourri of clashing content and genres — musicals, superhero movies, chanbara (samurai), yakuza — all executed with differing levels of funding ranging from shoestring to big-budget. With Miike, the ethos is simple: More is definitely more. Fittingly for someone who mixes and matches his approaches like a jazz musician riffing on a melody, Miike doesn’t even consider himself a filmmaker but rather an “arranger,” as he told Tom Mes in an interview with Midnight Eye. One of this arranger’s most notorious and well-known works, Ichi the Killer (2001), begins a week-long run this Friday at Metrograph, where it is being shown in a newly achieved 4K remaster of Miike’s “uncensored director’s cut.”

Like a healthy portion of Miike’s output, Ichi — part of the bundle of titles (Audition, the Dead or Alive trilogy, The Happiness of the Katakuris, Visitor Q) that catapulted him into the international-cinema limelight in the late ’90s and early ’00s — revels in joyous entropy and excessive vulgarity. It is also two hours of hurt. You know what you’re getting into right from the get-go, as a dizzying pre-title sequence, filmed at times in fast motion with a fish-eye lens, juggles a whirl of activity: a biker peddling through Tokyo at night (the names of the cast members appearing in the spinning cycle’s chains); a pimp brutally beating a sex worker as the title character peeps through the window to observe the violence. To top it all off, the name of the movie, when it appears, arises digitally from a close-up of a pool of goopy ejaculate.

Adapted from the manga of the same name by Hideo Yamamoto, Ichi plunges the viewer headfirst into the world of the Shinjuku yakuza. It’s a simple narrative of gangsters eliminating gangsters, but Miike renders the milieu opaque through a scattershot approach to plotting, seemingly every scene switching to a different character. It starts with Jijii (Shinya Tsukamoto, an intense filmmaker in his own right), a small, conniving boss, who coerces one of his underlings, Ichi (Nao Ômori), to murder another boss, Anjo, who is quickly dispatched with and never seen onscreen. Brainwashed and frequently cooped up in a room playing Tekken Tag Tournament on his PS2, Ichi is a broken man with empty eyes, a rictal smile, and blade-tipped motorcycle boots. The only hint of why he makes his living as a killing machine comes in the form of planted memories of bullying and a witnessed rape that Miike visualizes in anemic video.

Meanwhile, searching for Anjo’s whereabouts is the man’s own right-hand enforcer, the sadomasochist Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano). With his bleach-blonde hair, pierced Glasgow smile, and severe facial scars, Kakihara is the flashy character who anchors Ichi. He has plenty of time to show off his multicolored striped suits as he goes about his business, gouging, ripping, tearing, and cutting flesh and bone — including, sometimes, his own. Although Ichi is named after Ômori’s character, and everyone in it is both after him and intrigued by him, it is Kakihara who commands the screen. He murders his enemies with inventive, ultraviolent torture, in one scene stringing up a yakuza boss by his backside with hooks and pouring frying oil on his head. In another, a thug becomes a human dartboard as Kakihara throws long silver needles into his cheeks.

Miike shoots Ichi like a comic — bold, harsh camera angles and shots with distorted depth-of-field — the approach rendered all the more energetic thanks to the heap of extravagant violence. But underneath the spillage and flow of this gonzo activity, Miike layers a blood-stained commentary on a toxic world in which men offer protection to men but really end up dooming them to exist within a spasmodic, shambolic, and hypermasculine sphere of violence. The pulp writer James Ellroy, another purveyor of ubermasculine worlds that he at once luxuriates in and demolishes, famously offers this body-of-work summation when touring with one of his tomes: “These are books for the whole fuckin’ family, if the name of your family is the Manson family.” With Ichi, as with plenty of others, Miike makes a movie for the Manson family.

Ichi the Killer
Directed by Takashi Miike
Well Go USA Entertainment
Opens November 10, Metrograph