Ichi the killer is by far the most popular work of controversial auteur Takashi Miike. Directed with visual distinction and containing some of the most shocking on-screen violence to ever be captured on film – this Japanese horror/yakuza classic blends genre together so well that it has no precedent to be compared too.
The bloodshed, along with themes of sexual perversion and sado masochism, give the film a unique take on taboo content that elevates it to new heights of extreme cinema. The sheer insanity of its subject matter never takes away from the complex narrative and interesting characters. The film starts as a kind of mystery thriller with the boss of the Anjo gang being kidnapped by an unknown assailant and Kakihara’s gang searching for him. As the film continues though the audience is guided on a wild, bizarre and discomfiting journey into the world of yakuza.
The first of the three central characters the audience is introduced to is Kakihara, the degenerate high enforcer for the Anjo gang. Throughout the first half of the film Kakihara is presented as possessing nothing but pure psychotic anger. His primary motive for searching for the boss is originally thought to be fuelled by honour and guidance from leadership but it is soon revealed that Kakihara was constantly tortured by boss Anjo, allowing him to experience such a distinct feeling of pain that he revels in the process. It is this perverse motive that shapes Kakihara’s character throughout the rest of the film as he constantly hunts for a similar feeling of passionate pain that was once inflicted upon him by Anjo. There is no honour left inside him.
This is where Ichi steps into the equation – he plays an essential role in Kakihara’s arc. As soon as he finds out that Ichi brutally slaughtered boss Anjo, Kakihara becomes desperate and impatient to confront Ichi and engage in battle, since he believes Ichi will provide him with that same inimitable hatred he’s been desiring the whole time. The conclusion to Kakihara’s satanic quest for impassionate torture can be seen in the climax on the rooftop of the yakuza headquarters in which Kakihara is finally able to confront Ichi.
However, he doesn’t get the result he was hoping for as Ichi experiences his psychological downfall at the hands of Kaneko leaving him wounded as a result. This moment greatly aggravates Kakihara who then hallucinates the fight between him and Ichi falling to his death in the process. Ironically, this provides him with the torturous satisfaction he has been searching for the whole time. The conclusion to Kakihara’s arc conveys to the spectator how truly demented the yakuza enforcer is and how far he is willing to go to inflict pain on himself in order to experience sexual pleasure. Kakihara’s character arc provides a disturbing portrait of the mind of a pure sadist and he is arguably the most interesting character of the film.
The title character Ichi acts as the plot device that sets the events of the film in motion. Psychologically damaged and tragically vulnerable Ichi is manipulated into gradually murdering each of the members of the Anjo gang, including the boss. The devastating rampage Ichi embarks on is deliberately caused by Jijii – an ambitious mastermind who plans to use Ichi to take over the yakuza syndicate prevalent in Shinjuku.
Upon first impressions, Ichi is made out to be nothing more than a pure psychotic fuelled through aggression and deriving a sadistic sexual pleasure from death. However, it is revealed that the motivation for Ichi’s demonic path of destruction is a traumatic past that set the stage for Ichi’s psychological downfall. It is revealed that Ichi knew a girl back at high school who was raped by a gang of bullies, with Ichi witnessing the event occur, but not having the courage to intervene. It is this moment in Ichi’s life that commences his emotional downfall, as the horrific experience he witnessed as a teen acts almost as an introduction to the sadistic perversions he’d become obsessed over as an adult.
Aside from Ichi’s traumatic past, the vicious killer constantly attempts to connect with others, but continuously fails, due to the poor social perspective of the world around him. An example of this being showcased in the film, comes with Ichi’s relationship with Sailor, a prostitute he saves countless times during the first half of the film. At first, it seems as though Ichi is finally able to find a sense of peace after pursuing a relationship with Sailor. However, his uncontrollable profession of killing intervenes and Sailor eventually realises Ichi’s dark state of mind, causing Ichi to kill her in self-defence. The moment in which Ichi kills Sailor assures the spectator that Ichi is a soul that can’t be saved by any resemblance of peace, not even simple human connection.
All hope for any sort of catharsis for Ichi seems lost, until he reconnects with the girl that was raped at his high school. In this moment, the prostitute posing as the girl hired by Jijii – tells Ichi that her initial desire was for him to also rape her, explaining to Ichi that the experience gave her pleasure. Somehow understanding her situation, due to having similar sadistic tendencies, Ichi proceeds to kill the woman. Although he brutally murdered the wrong person, Ichi is at least able to have a peaceful state of mind, due to having a backwards realisation that people enjoy experiencing pain and that killing is the only way to gain pleasure. While his realisation is devastating, the spectator may also feel slightly relieved, as Ichi is finally able to find peace after a series of devastating situations.
Aside from the complex characters and their motivations that drive the film forward, the final confrontation and ending add much more layers to the films philosophical sensibilities. During the aftermath of the rooftop confrontation, Jijii is able to feel satisfaction, as every member of the Anjo gang is dead as a result of Ichi’s uncontrollable rampage. However, things don’t exactly end pleasantly for some of the characters.
The film then cuts a few years later, in which Jijii has committed suicide, his body hanging from a tree at a park, proving that complete control over a powerful force through murder and destruction, doesn’t allow satisfaction to last long, but instead drives an individual insane. The ending then shows Takeshi, the son of the yakuza bodyguard Kaneko, grown up, looking upon the body of Jijii, conveying to the spectator that the revenge for his father’s death has been served as a result of Jijii’s actions. Although the ending of the feature is devastatingly bleak, it serves as an appropriate end to a film with such brutal subject matter.