Three-Hundred Minute Review: Ichi The Killer (2001)

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I had my mind completely blown by mangaka Yamamoto Hideo’s (山本英夫) incredible Homunculus this week, a manga so powerful and compelling I read all 15 volumes in 24 hours.  Until I read up on the creator on Wikipedia, I had no idea that he had also written and drawn Ichi The Killer some years prior. I’d seen the movie back in 2001 and considered myself something of a scholar of Takashi Miike’s work [as an aside, please stop calling him ‘Mike’, as in ‘Mike the plumber’ or ‘Mike Jackson, the dead pop perv’; it’s pronounced ‘Me-eek-kay’]. I was unaware that it was based on an extremely violent yakuza manga. As soon as I’d completed Homunculus, I started in on Ichi. The two stories are poles apart visually and story-wise.

Returning now to the movie, thirteen years later, is a very different experience from when I first watched it in horrified silence in the company of friends. It’s become a byword for extremity on-screen, something cooked up by a disturbed mind from the Far East where the torture scenes conjure up harrowing memories of Unit 731, Abe Sada or centuries of unchecked violence under feudal rule. Watching it now, it’s a superbly black comedy that rarely strays from the original source material. It’s an almost-perfect comic book adaptation.

If you aren’t squeamish, the violence is utterly absurd, the characters over-the-top and universally despicable, and the amorality of the film couldn’t be more ironic if it tried. Violence begets violence, it’s as simple as that. The only scene that stuck out in my mind from the original viewing was a scene in which a yakuza is suspended with hooks Hellraiser-style while a slit-mouthed man pours hot oil onto his back. Kakihara dresses like the Joker in the movie version: wide-mouthed and dyed hair on top of a purple trenchcoat. Ichi himself is a proto-Batman in his all-black superhero bodysuit with a bright 1 on his back. It’s a perverse refraction of the DC character down to the abusive and violent childhood which created the ‘hero’, a questionable characteristic considering he spends his evenings indecently assaulting people.

The comedy is amplified in Takashi’s version: yakuza bumble about in a slapstick fashion when the boss faints after seeing Kakihara slice his own tongue off. He even takes a call, not reacting to the pain, while spitting fresh blood onto the boss’ table. Ridiculous rather than horrifying. The main difference is that the focus of the movie is on the villain of the piece rather than Ichi himself. In the first 50 minutes of run-time, Ichi appears only in three very short (but memorable) scenes, and is detached from the yakuza narrative completely.

Of course the sexual violence in the movie is deplorable, as it is in the manga, and these scenes are actually less graphic than the source material which makes for deeply uncomfortable reading. Yamamoto forces you to confront darkness you may not have seen before in comics on such a scale. It’s handled in a very gratuitous fashion that Western publishers wouldn’t dare print it lest they come under heavy fire from all spectrums of the media, but worst of all is essential to the story. The moral dilemma left me drained (contrasted with the vile use of a rape in Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass 2, which cemented my resolution never to read any of his work again).

What was confusing about viewing the movie in isolation was a lack of understanding about Japanese culture and customs, not knowing it was an adaptation, and regarding it as a sequence of extremely violent moments only loosely linked by the odd word here and there that barely composed a script. In actuality, the story makes much more sense after spending 10 hours reading the original, which may defeat the object but enriches the experience ten fold.

Synopsis (with spoilers): Ichi is a pawn of Jiji (Old Man), sent to do hits as and when he’s requested to do so. Old Man’s team consists of a junkie and a Chinese pimp, both of whom are equally dispensable. In a block of flats in Shinjuku, a dangerous part of Tokyo where prostitution, drugs and violence appear to be a part of daily life there (from experience of visiting the place, it’s not), a yakuza boss called Anjo and his mistress are killed by Ichi and their bodies cleaned up by the rest of the group. Kakihara, one of Anjo’s disciples and possible lover, refuses to believe his boss has done a runner with all the gang’s cash with his mistress. He sets out to find him, only to be misdirected by Old Man who claims other gangs within the same apartment block were behind his disappearance. What follows is a game of cat-and-mouse as Kakihara attempts to find what happened to his boss. He reveals his masochistic side on numerous occasions, such as his penitent removal of the sweet part of his tongue in front of his superiors. Eventually Kakihara faces Ichi for a typically bloody Takashi showdown.

Return to this film. Watch it with filtered sunglasses on. It’s ridiculous, over-the-top nonsense. It is not an endorsement of violence or abuse, anything but. Takashi is taking the piss out of gangs and out of his audience because he knows at the end of the day you can’t take a joke.

Why so serious?

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Three Minute Review #8: The Funhouse (1981)

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Another Tobe Hooper, this time from the early Eighties, and a mixed bag of testes: perhaps the start of his slide. The film starts with soon-to-be-last girl Amy (played by Amadeus actress Elizabeth Berridge) showering whilst a masked intruder (her younger brother) tries to stab her to death with a plastic knife. The homage to Psycho and pastiche of Carpenter’s Halloween is rather lazy and dated, and then there’s the creepy factor that a 10 year old is trying to peek at his sister’s soapy breasts.

Amy chastises the lad and then nicks off to the local fun fair with her jock date and stoner pals for a night shagging in the funhouse, owned by a redneck and his deformed son who works as the ride’s assistant in a Frankenstein’s monster mask. The group overhear him receiving hand pleasure from the aged fortune-teller and his quick bolt-throwing sends him into a murderous rage. He chokes the poor woman and then tells his father, who helps him cover up the murder because “family needs to stick together”, something Hooper hammered home in his earlier Chain Saw Massacre in 1974.

It’s a predictable affair and there’s not much to enjoy except the abrupt ending. If the characters were as unhinged as those in Eaten Alive or TCSM perhaps it could have been elevated beyond bargain bin fodder.

3/10

Three Minute Review #7: Eaten Alive (1977)

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Tobe Hooper’s follow-up feature after the deeply disturbing Texas Chain Saw Massacre was this blackly comic monster/slasher flick starring Neville Brand and a very young pre-Elm Street Robert Englund. Brand plays Judd, the proprietor of a run-down motel somewhere deep in the foggy Bayou, whose deep aversion to all things sexual has him feeding the patrons to his pet crocodile from Africa. What makes this film stand out from others is the eye-gouging EC Comic palette and abhorrent cast of characters that populate it. Think something along the lines of Lynch’s Wild At Heart, Jaws and Psycho thrown into a blender. Englund’s Buck character is as repugnant as any you’d find in a Tarantino, and there’s enough blood and relentless screaming to satisfy most gore freaks. A lost horror gem worth digging up.

9/10

Three Minute Review #6: Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

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The Exorcist is rightly considered a peerless religious horror classic that still has the power to unsettle the most sceptical of viewers. In America, they take it much more seriously, and at a screening of the recut version in 2000, I sat with a spellbound and terrified audience which made for an electrifying cinema experience. John Boorman’s completely misguided sequel, even viewed unconnected to William Peter Blatty’s original, is like an embarrassing TV movie made by people with too much money. If it had been made in the Eighties, that money would have at least been snorted through a bill. Boorman didn’t know what to do with the source material or his cast. What’s left is an embarrassing mess best avoided. Go straight to Exorcist III, the superb and unfairly ignored follow-up.

2/10

Three Minute Review #5: The Night of Terror (1981)

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Made for £100 by the 13-year old Andrea Bianachi and written by his 6-year old brother Piero Rignoli, The Night of Terror (or Burial Ground) is a zombie film so bad, I can’t imagine what the backers said when they saw the first cut. They probably gouged their own eyes out screaming “WHY”. There’s nothing to recommend it other than a hilarious self-conscious sex scene featuring a densely pubic back going hell for leather on top of a crudely dubbed MILF. I’m sure the producers of Resident Evil found inspiration here: the zombies are hungover extras and the knackered-looking mansion looks pretty grim. However, the title is garbage: the majority of the “terror” occurs in broad daylight and couldn’t even give Tom Baker Doctor Who episodes a run for their money.

2/10

Three Minute Review #4: Fist of Fury (1972)

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Fist of Fury is to date the only Bruce Lee film I’ve ever seen, and I was surprised by the actor’s range. For someone who hung their trade off their one inch punch martial arts skills, he turns in a fine young thug, comical phone repair man and romantic lead. Not what you would expect from a Kung Fu flick at all. The other actors fade into the background next to Lee, and the portrayal of the Japanese does come across as bitter (particularly in light of the current tensions between the countries), but in context the Chinese did have a lot to be angry about after their awful treatment at the hands of their oppressors. The version I watched was widescreen and in Cantonese: I can’t abide dubbed foreign film. A good entry point for those who don’t have a clue about martial arts. Or neck punching.

7/10

Three Minute Review #3: The Sentinel (1977)

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I was disappointed to find out this film was made by white-haired, deceased insurance salesman Michael Winner in the opening credits, and thus predictable boredom turned to irritation after a mere 15 minutes. The plot is absolute guff, special effects only as sophisticated as blue face-paint, and shocks completely absent for what I stupidly assumed was a horror film. I felt sorry for Cristina Reins’ involvement in this rip-off of the more popular religious horrors of the era. Worst of all is the climax, in which Winner’s vision of hell on earth is twenty people with various disabilities and deformities dragging their stumps up a staircase, groaning. Offensive on multiple levels, there’s more fun to be had standing in the rain being kicked in the groin by a tramp.

1/10