Based on the popular manga Koroshiya 1 by Hideo Yamamoto, this is a black comedy of extraordinarily perverse dimensions by Takashi Miike, the leading exponent of Japanese new wave cinema. It stars Tandanobu Asano as the blond, and scar-faced, Kakihara, a sadomasochistic yakuza gangster investigating the disappearance of his boss. Kakihara is kicked out of the syndicate for being too nasty. He eagerly tortures another bad guy, Suzuki (Susumu Terajima), during a bizarre interrogation, and when chastised by others in his own group for breaking the usual rules of engagement for underworld conflicts, Kakihara goes one step further than performing the now familiar yakuza sacrificial gesture of slicing off one of his fingers, by cutting out his own tongue instead. Eventually, Kakihara’s inquiries eventually discover that a legendarily vicious and extremely proficient assassin named Ichi is responsible for several deaths in the criminal organisation. However, the truth proves to be stranger than you’d think when it’s revealed that Ichi (played with an incomparable flair for disconcerting irony by nerdy looking Nao Omori) is a crybaby imbecile with a destructive guilt complex, super kung fu reflexes and retractable blades in his high-kicking karate boots. And that’s not all. Unimposing lurker Jijii (portrayed with sinister calm by Shinya Tsukamoto, director of the cultworthy Tetsuo movies) is Ichi’s embittered mentor, a vengeful antihero using hypnotic suggestion to direct the increasingly violent actions of a clearly demented Ichi. There’s also dominatrix hooker Karen (delightfully named leading lady Alien Sun, the alias of Paulyn Sun) who gladly rises to the challenge of meting out corporal punishment to pain-loving criminal Kakihara, before she unsuspectingly becomes fatally attracted to the homicidal Ichi.
Ichi is a monstrous child figure, driven mad by haunting memories of school bullies, ashamed of his cowardice over failing to intervene during a gang rape, and excluded from society by a general feeling of inadequacy and actual physical impotence, but with a habit of masturbating when sexually aroused by brutality and gore. It is, perhaps, no wonder that the filmmaker received some critical flak when choosing to explore such outré material but, in his defence, let’s just say that Miike (pron: mee-kay) has an aesthetic and technical sensibility that’s clearly unrestrained by the dictates, conventions or bounds of popular taste – good or bad, and leave it at that. When Ichi breaks into the gangsters’ den, most of their blood gushes out of the door,
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but their organs remain inside. Bodily fluids often drip from walls and ceilings in carnal house settings where impressive measures of spilled guts are unavoidably trampled underfoot. Oh, and here’s a viewing tip about this oddly illogical, occasionally surreal film: pay close attention during the rooftop finale, to figure out who killed who, and which of the desperate characters may simply have committed suicide.
The DVD release, like the original UK cinema version, is cut by three minutes and 15 seconds, due to “scenes of mutilated, raped or savagely beaten women or of sexual pleasure from violence.” The cuts are obvious in this film, and detract from its narrative coherence and artistic credibility. In essence, Ichi The Killer is badly spoilt, if not ruined by BBFC tampering. Despite containing prolonged scenes of hideous violence against a man by a woman, the director’s Audition was passed by uncut by the BBFC. So why is violence against women by men a definite no-go zone, even for foreign filmmakers? Excuse my ranting here, but this vaguely stupid and arbitrary moralising by British censors is utterly malicious and wholly repugnant, and calls into question the social responsibility and very sanity of those doing the cutting, more than any value judgements about the filmmakers’ seemingly prurient interest in shocking viewers with progressively disturbing images.
When will the BBFC abandon this regrettable tendency for abusing its power and accept that their role in the film industry should be confined to the admin duty of ‘classification’ (as their official title states) only? BBFC activity maintains a consistently malign interference in the ‘editing’ process that is both injurious to modern filmmakers and insulting to mature audiences. With the uncut release of several movies once condemned as ‘video nasties’ many BBFC decisions of the last three decades have recently been overturned. I assume the organisation have learned nothing from those mistakes and are continuing with an increasingly absurd policy of contempt for audiences and blinding ignorance of quality filmmaking from respectable overseas sources.
The cut version of Ichi The Killer is what I find truly offensive here, and I would like to complain to the marketing dept of DVD label Premier Asia for releasing an incomplete movie without drawing attention to the fact of its censorship (though I do sympathise with their position in having to deal with the BBFC). I think there is no place for such censored films in an international, multicultural DVD market of the 21st century. Perhaps the release of ‘contentious’ films ought to be postponed until matters can be settled in the courts, where it should be a requirement that the BBFC prove (at their own expense, of course) its claims that any professionally made film breaks current obscenity laws. Until then, I suggest we offer support to any British anti-censorship protests, and complain at every opportunity to the (unelected) meddling staff of the BBFC.
Premier Asia’s two-disc package features an anamorphic transfer enhanced for widescreen TV, with a Dolby digital 5.1 soundtrack, and an audio commentary by Hong Kong films expert Bey Logan, accompanied by producer Elliot Tong and actress Alien Sun. The extras disc includes filmed interviews with director Miike, and leading cast (three of which are subtitled as only Alien Sun speaks English), photo galleries (including some cheesy glamour shots of Ms Sun), a press kit with ‘alternative’ director interview, outtakes, and behind-the-scenes footage, trailers, text-only thumbnail biographies and filmographies for director and main cast. A substantial package overall, but again, there’s evidence of BBFC cuts made to the documentary material.