I started cringing even before the film actually started. I had been warned about Ichi the Killer by a friend, and Takashi Miike fanatic, who said that my previous screening of Gozu would be nothing compared to the twisted Ichi. I found myself able to stomach some of the violence while trying to make sense of the ever-twisting plot and complex sexuality. Amidst the body-splitting violence, a tale of abandonment shines through.
The opening scene of Ichi begins not with Ichi nor Kakihara, but with Kaneko who feels guilty for leaving Boss Anjo unguarded. He is rebuffed and then receives a phone call from his son begging him to not leave him like his mother did. It is in this first scene that the theme of abandonment is established.
A little while later we meet Kakihara, the flamboyantly dressed, menacing, sadomasochistic protagonist. Boss Anjo has gone missing, and Kakihara wants answers. His flamboyant dress, and a few dialogue references, imply that Anjo and Kakihara were romantically involved. It is revealed, however, that Kakihara is desparate to find Anjo because he relishes the pain that only Anjo can inflict. Kakihara is left to fill the void which he tries to again and again, and fails. No matter how much sadistic violence he carries out on the people he believes responsible for Anjo’s disappearance, and himself, he cannot fulfill his desire for masochism. Karen, a multilingual prostitute, tries to satisfy his needs, but she does not enjoy giving the pain as much as he enjoys receiving it. Things seem hopeless until Kakihara discovers that Ichi killed Anjo; he gleans from his handiwork that this Ichi is a psychopath who enjoys doling out pain.
Ichi is a psychopath, a killer who loves with the retractable blades from his shoes. Miike manages to create sympathy for Ichi’s character at the beginning of the film. His sexual perversion is the result of a traumatic childhood in which he was bullied and he witnessed the rape of a girl he knew. He didn’t stop it because he wanted to participate. The truth is that those memories were implanted by Jijii. Ichi killed his parents, for unknown reasons, and was adopted by Jijii. Ichi has a fragile psyche; he often cries before leaping into a bout of homicidal rage. He is scared to be abandoned, a feeling that is echoed by Kaneko’s son Takeshi, so he listens to Jijii’s instructions even if they go against his nature.
As the film progresses Kakihara loses most of his associates. He is kicked out of the syndicate and his soldiers flee after seeing Ichi’s wrath. Kaneko stays out of respect to Anjo, the man that saved Kaneko when he was without anyone else. Kakihara and Kaneko are anxious to find Ichi. Kakihara is both anxious and apprehensive, worried that he’ll be let down by Ichi like he has by so many others. In the end he is. Ichi, believing that Kaneko is his brother, is devastated when Kaneko shoots him. Ichi slices his throat with his shoe-blade and then falls to the ground crying. He has lost his brother, he is alone again. Kakihara is unable to coax him into a fight. Realizing that he will never obtain what he wants, Kakihara commits suicide. As he does so, he hallucinates and envisions the death he wanted at the hands of Ichi. Both characters were looking for each other, Ichi not knowing that Kakihara was the only person that would appreciate the pain he was inflicting, and both characters were disappointed when they found each other.
I would be remiss to talk about the film without mentioning the violence. While it is certainly a graphic film, it is done well. Most of the violence is of the cartoonish variety, with the exception being the violence inflicted on the prostitute, by her pimp, that Ichi spies on. Aside from that, there are blood squirts, CGI-ed cross-sections of bodies, and enough entrails and blood to point an entire room top to bottom. The inevitable question is if the gratuity is justified, or more simply, why do it? The attitudes of the characters are a mirror to the audience. Kakihara and other characters enjoy the violence they inflict in an experimental way. One of the twin, corrupt detectives that helps Kakihara, asks his victim if he believes a human arm can be pulled from the body. It seems that what really drives the characters is a morbid curiosity that they have in common with the viewing audience. Can we really do this? Do I really want to watch this? The answer is not as simple as yanking an arm out of its socket.
Equally as mystifying as the violence, is the character of Jijii, the puppet master who orchestrates most of the slayings in the film. At first he seems average or even below average, but we soon learn that through hypnosis he has implanted memories into Ichi and Karen. Towards the end of the film he rips of his clothes to reveal a bodybuilder’s physique and then proceeds to crush Kakihara’s right hand man into a human pretzel. The question, again, is why? Why would he manipulate Ichi if he is powerful enough, and smart enough, to commit the murders himself? The only answer, short of invented motives, is that Jijii represents the writer of the story. He is responsible for unleashing these characters into a hellish world, creating their back stories and allowing them to destroy each other. Jijii is reckless, his actions serve no purpose, in the same way that the film is reckless and does not seek to answer questions about itself or anything else. The only point is that we’re all a bunch of sadists, creators and consumers alike, who want to see bad things happen to people. There are varying degrees, and Ichi the killer is at the end of the spectrum, but nobody wants to watch a film where good things happen to the characters in an endless cycle.
It would be easy to dismiss the film as a reckless piece of gore-porn. It can be difficult to see a point through the blood-soaked frames, but Miike is too intelligent to be dismissed. His violence is a question posed to the audience: why are we watching this? Perhaps we feel abandonment like the characters in the film. Maybe pain, in this case extreme pain, is the only thing that makes us feel or have a reaction. I can say that like Kakihara, I was anxious and apprehensive for his meeting with Ichi, unsure if I would be let down and scared of what it would mean for my expectations to be met. In the end I was disappointed, but I wasn’t sure why.