Ichi The Killer (Koroshiya 1) is one of my all time top films and it is by my favourite director – Takeshi Miike. I would say it is Miike’s best film, but he has such an extensive and varied catalogue it is hard to even see all his films let alone really compare them: they range from zombie musicals (Happiness of the Katakuris) to spaghetti westerns based on Shakespeare’s Henry VI (Sukiyaki Western Django). Miike is one of the world’s most prolific directors, making about 3 films every year for the past two decades and they are rarely in the same genre twice, although he does have a love stories involving the Yakuza (Japanese organised crime). This is one of the reasons that Ichi The Killer is so great and it is why it is a film only Takeshi Miike could have made: it doesn’t sit in just one genre. It’s like an amalgamation: in one moment it is a comedy, then the next it is a horror. It has a constantly crying ‘hero’ in a superhero costume (the eponymous Ichi), it has a murderous body-building old man, it has psychopathic police detective twins – one of whom dresses up as a dog… it’s a really quite unusual film.
Ichi is a hitman who is manipulated into taking out Yakuza gang leaders and members. He is used as a weapon by a shady trio who have their own agenda, and soon he is on a collision course with a Yakuza leader who relishes the idea of meeting someone who is apparently as sadistic and depraved as Ichi – judging by the mess that he leaves behind. You literally have to wade through rooms where Ichi has been because of all the blood. Well, blood and other fluids. It’s quite gross.
The real star though is the Yakuza leader Kakihara, played by Tadanobu Asano – one of the greatest actors in the world at the moment, last seen doing absolutely fuck all as Hogun in ‘Thor’. Kakihara is a Yakuza leader with a penchant for… well for being beaten up, mutilated and pierced, and doing the same to other people. This is one of the all-time great villain performances in cinema, a mumbling and apathetic yet enigmatic and colourful menace who seems barely to even care as he leads his gang on a self-destructive quest for revenge. What’s interesting is that Kakihara really has a lot in common with another great villain – Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight. Both have the same shambolic manner, both make everyone around them extremely uncomfortable with their penchant for unpredictable violence and both are motivated by personal quests and don’t care who they drag down with them. They both look similar – both in dress (long purple coats) and they even both have a smile that has been carved onto their face – Kakihara keeps his held shut with piercings. Also both of them are completely obsessed with an opponent in black body armour – although Ichi does cry and masturbate more than Batman.
I doubt that Heath Ledger was inspired by Kakihara, or that Christopher Nolan was actually influenced by Ichi The Killer, and I wouldn’t really want to compare the films as they are very, very different in tone and style. But although Kakihara is probably more sadistic than the Joker – who, for all his numerous failings as a human being, doesn’t seem to get off quite so much on torture – I think you could argue that Takeshi Miike beat The Dark Knight to the punch and made the first film about the Joker: he saw the potential for a nihilistic villain with no morals and no empathy, and he imagined what such a person would do if they gained control of a gang and were let lose in a busy city.
As with most Miike films, Ichi is occasionally a bit rough around the edges – though surprisingly the CGI and special effects are pretty decent (Happiness of the Katakuris occasionally uses claymation for special effects as the budget was so limited). But like most Miike films, it is so brazen that it doesn’t matter. The scene where a person gets cut clean in half – that would later be ripped off in about a thousand other movies – makes no real sense, there is no way it would be physically possible – but Miike never lets little things like that get in the way of a good idea. And the gore is excessive, rooms are literally festooned with blood and entrails to an implausible extent which just makes it funnier when someone slips over on a spleen. I think films like ‘The Machine Girl’ have been inspired a lot by this mix or horror and comedy. But as soon as Ichi The Killer starts resembling something like ‘Braindead’ it switches gear and suddenly it is something else entirely. Again: it’s unpredictable.
I guess when you make so many films in such a short amount of time, and when you clearly have so many ideas, things can get a bit muddled up: Ichi has loads of great ideas in it, possibly even too many. It’s based on a manga (that I haven’t read) but Miike generally puts his own stamp on films and one thing I have come to realise about Miike’s films is that they make more sense collectively than individually sometimes. While Ichi The Killer is a great film in it’s own right, I have a feeling it will appeal more to fans who ‘get it’ a bit, or who at least aren’t coming to it cold, where it might be a bit overwhelming. Miike has made a lot of other yakuza films, some in a similar vein, though maybe none quite so excessive, and they might serve as a decent introduction – I’d say the excellent ‘Dead or Alive’ is a good jumping on point. Or you can dive right in with something like Ichi or ‘Visitor Q’ if you are feeling brave.