BY ROCCO THOMPSON
“Hit me.” said the masochist,
“No.” said the sadist.
Since 2011, four of Takashi Miike’s films have been presented at the Cannes Film Festival. Though those four movies hardly amount to a drop in the ocean that is the madly prolific Japanese auteur’s filmography (the most recent of these BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL has been widely marketed as his 100th feature), they do seem to toll a death knell for his status as a master provocateur. Of course, the massively influential French festival is a good deal more daring than many of its ilk across the Atlantic—and good filmmakers thirst for and deserve the accolades that being exhibited there affords them—but it’s arguable that for many of the most radical directors, (from Lars Von Trier to David Lynch) by the time they’re deemed respectable enough for Cannes, their best work is behind them.
This isn’t to say that Miike’s latest projects aren’t wonderful in their own right. His recent work within the Samurai film genre that has always been synonymous with his people’s cultural identity is a welcome, though surprisingly late, development, and he still churns out multiple efforts in just about every genre imaginable per year. For most fans, however, Miike’s golden era came at the start of the new millennium, when he achieved international recognition with a tidal wave of outrageous works that have lost none of their gut-wrenching potency in the years since. There may be no shortage of severed limbs or shocks in Miike’s most recent films, but they don’t come within an arterial spray’s distance of his turn-of-the century output.
This fertile period of artfully offensive filmmaking began with cheeky yakuza effort DEAD OR ALIVE (1999) and the deceptively innocuous AUDITION (1999) and crashed with Miike’s cancelled MASTERS OF HORROR episode, the relentlessly cruel IMPRINT (2006). During this time he made several entries that would become classics in his oeuvre, such as the revolting black comedy VISITOR Q (2001) and the certifiably insane musical/horror mashup, THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS (2001). Miike’s third film released in 2001, however, has eclipsed all others and become synonymous with his name, the infamous ICHI THE KILLER.
Based on the manga by Hideo Yamamoto, the film tells the story of Ichi (Nao Omori), a compulsive murderer and crybaby who is psychologically manipulated by the mysterious Jijii (TETSUO: THE IRON MAN director, Shinya Tsukamoto) into slaughtering targeted yakuza members in a bid to turn rival factions against each other. Hot on Ichi’s trail is Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano), a sadomasochistic enforcer who—though initially driven by a thirst for retribution—quickly becomes bewitched by the notion of going toe-to-toe with the weeping psychopath and meeting his glorious end at his hands.
Miike’s films are always fascinating, because of their exhilarating mixture of objective bad taste and existential insight. Anyone who has witnessed a yakuza boss waxing poetic while drowning a hooker in a kiddie pool full of her own shit in DEAD OR ALIVE or the familial-nursing tableau that concludes VISITOR Q can hardly deny that the sick stomach feeling of revulsion these scenes provoke is cut with a warm gulp of profundity which keeps the viewer glued to their seat even when the going gets rough. Some would say that all cinema is experiential, but Miike’s cinema is uber-experiential: daring the viewer to look at degradation and see themselves in it.
AUDITION does this by luring the viewer close with its magnetic chilliness before grabbing you by the hair and rubbing your nose in its lead antagonist’s misery. Though AUDITION demands empathy for its villainess, ICHI THE KILLER one-ups it by directly involving the viewer in the emotional landscape of the characters, ditching coyness for outright provocation when the film’s title rises from a pool of actual human (if Miike is to be believed) semen. Miike then tests the audience’s limits with a seemingly endless parade of violent setpieces: Kakihara all-too realistically amputates his own tongue. Ichi splits a pimp in half from crown to crotch, his body cleanly bisected in one of the film’s many conspicuously bad moments of CGI. A man is suspended from meat hooks and burned with hot oil. The fully-intact face of a flayed gangster hits a wall with a wet splat and glides slickly down its surface.
It’s through this alternating pattern of repulsion and amusement that Miike pushes and prods the viewer into playing the role of the masochist. As we grow accustomed to the violence, we hope for more, practically begging the filmmaker to assault our retinas again with something new to stroke our lower-reptilian brain. And yet, as Kakihara learns in the abortive climax…anticipation breeds disappointment. Though he spurs Ichi to fight him (almost like a lover) the wailing fool can’t perform, and Kakihara is left unsatisfied. And, as Miike the sadist withholds catharsis, so are we. The audience leaves the film spent and agitated, the meaninglessness of the endeavor and the overwhelming sense of being the butt of an extraordinarily black joke lingering. Takashi Miike stimulates and excites the viewer with scenes of sickness and degradation for two hours and offers no release, a bleak commentary on the human thirst for violence and the way “heroism” makes it go down smooth. How are we to view ourselves as consumers of violence in a world without heroes? As Miike himself says on the film’s commentary: “Kakihara looks really cruel…but actually we are the cruel ones.”
Well Go USA Entertainment has released Emperor Motion Pictures’ recent full digital restoration on Blu-ray disc. The film itself begins with a quick background on the process, which states: “A new transfer was created in 4K resolution from a 35mm inter-negative at L’Imagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy. It was then digitally restored and colour graded in 4K resolution. With a running time of 128 minutes, this restored version of Ichi the Killer, as approved by Takashi Miike, is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1.” ICHI THE KILLER has always had it a bit rough in terms of home entertainment releases. I first owned it on DVD when it came in an eye-catching special edition “blood pack” from Media Blasters. Anyone who bought that particular edition of the film will remember: attempting to remove the discs from that sticky plastic monstrosity was an act of torture even Kakihara would flinch at. The next release of note was Tokyo Shock’s Blu-ray in 2010, which was received with almost universal disapproval due to its washed out, noisy transfer. Well Go USA’s release is a marked improvement in both packaging and visual presentation. ICHI THE KILLER was shot on 16mm film stock, so one can’t expect superlative visual detail, but the image here is noticeably cleaner and the visual palette is much more deeply saturated. One feels that this is how ICHI was always supposed to look, less verité and more fantastique. The packaging is also lovely, featuring a slipcover with a new painterly rendition of the film’s iconic image of Tadanobu Asano as Kakihara.
The biggest bummer here is the meager amount of special features. The disc includes an audio commentary with the Director and Manga Artist/Writer Hideo Yamamoto, a still gallery, the original theatrical trailer, and…that’s it. Though commentaries are always worth treasuring, this one is obviously ported over from a past release, and a pretty old one, considering the fact that Miike mentions that Quentin Tarantino was working on a project (KILL BILL) with many of the Japanese actors from his stable at the time. It’s truly a pity, as this is likely the best edition we’ll get of this release for the foreseeable future. Any boutique Blu-ray company (Arrow Video for example, who have a bevy of Miike’s films in their catalogue) would have released ICHI with a slew of lovingly curated special features. As is, Well Go USA’s release just isn’t up to snuff. This film deserves a more thoughtful presentation by people who understand its merits.
Japan’s most famous renegade may have require an air of respectability in recent years, but he’ll always be most fondly remembered by fans of extreme cinema for his early 2000s output. Predating the likes of SAW and HOSTEL, Takashi Miike’s brand of cinematic mayhem was hardcore stuff that’s lost none of its punch over the years. ICHI THE KILLER, the most popular, and arguably best of his films is out now on Blu-ray, newly restored by Emperor Motion Pictures’.Though the film as presented by Well Go USA is likely the best it will ever look, the lack of special features is a shame, and anyone who’s felt lukewarm about ICHI in the past won’t find anything here to shed new light or change their mind. If you own an earlier version of this masterpiece of cinematic perversion or have yet to experience it, this disc is a must-buy for the restoration alone. Those of us who would give an arm or a leg for a more comprehensive release, however, may just have to nut up and start slicing.