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: Bloody Birthday (1981)

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And the winner of the Most Cynical Attitude Towards Children Award goes to… Mr. Ed Hunt! Come up here! Take a bow! Wow. Simply, wowzers. Bloody Birthday is a triumph all right. Not only does it pack in all of the tosh we expect of slashers from the Eighties (death, breasts and bad dialogue), but it turns the genre upside down by making the killer a *SPOILER* murderous triad of preteens. What’s their motive? Honestly, I have no idea. Not a clue. Being taken to the dentist against their will. Or not being bought a car once they’d slid out of the womb. It is America, after all.

One of the group, an All-American Cutie by most preening mom’s standards, charges her gang 25 cents to view her sister through a hole in her closet dancing topless in her bedroom, cavorting with a fat-haired jock and later shoots an arrow into her eye and dumps her body by the bins for the men to collect in the morning. Does she find any of this harrowing? Not at all: the film ends with her dropping an entire truck on the poor sod who was lying underneath trying to fix it.

What surprised me about the film was the way that the children were portrayed; as soulless, cold-hearted murderers that don’t react in any way to the horrific things they’re doing to their friends, family and neighbours. It’s demented, unapologetic, harrowing and ridiculous, all good reasons for watching it.

7/10

Three Minute Review #9: The Stuff (1985)

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The Stuff has only existed in my memory as a hazy Betamax trailer seen at a bad kid’s house in the mid-80s, the sort of place you were discouraged from visiting should you pick up bad language or nits. I know next to nothing about its director Larry Cohen, and no one has ever mentioned this movie in hushed tones about its “lost classic” status. It’s probably not been available on DVD for the past ten years.

Time to face my fears then. Things kick off with no fanfare whatsoever. An bearded old geezer sees the ground bubbling up beneath him, decides to taste the white muck (as if you actually would do this) and discovers it’s the most delicious thing he’s ever tasted in his entire life. What are the odds! It being America, this natural product needs to be marketed and sold as quickly as possible to the greedy sods in the supermarket. Soon, the country is hooked and others in the dessert biz aren’t too happy about their plummeting sales. They hire Mo Rutherford to investigate the secret behind The Stuff’s success, and things take a decidedly X-Files-like turn as Mo drives around backyard USA meeting brick wall after brick wall trying to get to the bottom of the mysterious product.

One hour into the movie, you’re no wiser to the reason why The Stuff is so popular, where it came from, and why everyone has gone all Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. Michael Moriarty gives an oddball performance as the investigator, and his abrupt romance with the PR woman had me scratching my head confused how he managed it. There are moments where sharks are jumped using the Titanic and yet it has the pace of an A-Team episode when they’re hammering all the junk together in a garage to go do in the baddies. Some of the shaving foam special effects look a bit dodgy but that’s to be expected of a mid-80s low-budget flick like this. It’s almost kid-friendly daytime TV stuff except for a few weird gross-out moments. Not the stuff of nightmares, but altogether not bad either. Except for the hairdos.

6/10

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