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?