Judge Adam Arseneau once considered getting his ears pierced. Now, after watching Ichi the Killer, he vomits uncontrollably whenever he sees a needle.
Ai wa, kanari itai. (Love really hurts.)
If ever a film could be considered notorious, Ichi the Killer fits the profile to a tee. Groundbreaking through its constant exploration of shocking violence, misogyny, sexual perversion and on-screen graphic carnage, Ichi rattled many a cinematic cage traversing the oceans from Japan to North America. Based on the manga by Hideo Yamamoto and directed by renowned and prolific Japanese cult director Takashi Miike (Audition, The Bird People in China, Black Society Trilogy, Gozu, Izo and about six hundred other films), Ichi the Killer is a cinematic experience unlike any other.
Just when you thought Ichi the Killer couldn't get any more controversial, here comes Ichi the Killer: Blood Pack, which comes packed in (yep, you guessed it) a big ol' bag of blood! With any other movie, such gimmicky packing would be tasteless and puerile, but for Ichi the Killer it makes perfect sense. Let us see if this two-disc Blood Pack improves upon Media Blaster's previous single-disc release.
Facts of the Case
When the crime boss of the Anjo yakuza syndicate goes missing with a huge sum of money, his right-hand man Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano, Zatoichi, Taboo) sets out on the streets to find him. Calling Kakihara a masochist would be a serious understatement—he lives for pain in all its forms, doled out in healthy doses by his employer. Now, with Kakihara's primary source of pleasurable punishment unavailable, Kakihara hits the streets to find his boss, part out of loyalty and part because nobody else is merciless enough to fully satisfy him. It is Kakihara's turn to dish out some pain, which he does with dizzying proficiency and merciless pleasure.
Kakihara soon learns of a mysterious hitman named Ichi (Nao Omori, Vibrator) who may be responsible for Anjo's death as well as numerous others in the city. After seeing the dismembered body parts left in Ichi's wake, Kakihara finds himself fascinated with Ichi. Could he be the one who can deliver him the pain he so desperately desires? His mind a-tingle with the thought of their glorious showdown, he tracks Ichi, unaware that Ichi is hardly the adversary Kakihara has made him out to be. A scared, confused and dysfunctional teenager, Ichi is manipulated into violence by Jijii (auteur director Shinya Tsukamoto, A Snake Of June, Vital, Tetsuo) who seeks nothing but the complete and systematic destruction of the Anjo clan…
Director Takashi Miike's magnum opus, at least in terms of sheer infamy, Ichi the Killer is an over-the-top explosion of sexual perversion, sadism, torture, masochism, gore, violence, abuse and exploitation that literally blew the backs of skulls out of audiences in Japan when released. The Japanese had no idea what to do with the film, so they exported it to North America, where it quickly rose to legendary cult status in horror circles. Banned, edited, censored, stymied, vilified, condemned and rebuked the world over, those who managed to get through Ichi the Killer without projectile vomiting, crying or passing out became immediately divided on the subject of the film's worth. Fans adore it as being a crowning gem of exploitation cinema, pushing the boundaries of censorship in cinema further than ever before, while critics whispered outrage between bouts of tears and vomiting, huddled together in the corner of the room, passing out in piles of their own sick.
Oh sure, Takashi Miike is not quite the obscurity he one was, what with the Interwebs and numerous public outpourings of praise by influenced genre directors like Quentin Tarrantino and Eli Roth. In the horror industry, Miike has more weight than a sumo champion, and most cinemaphiles have seen his work, or heard enough pale-faced, shaky warnings against seeing his work. But back in the day, Ichi the Killer appeared as unexpectedly as an atomic bomb in downtown New York City to North American audiences. There was literally nothing even close to it being created in this country—at least, nothing legal.
The plot, such as it is, is secondary to the never-ending violence in Ichi the Killer, a full-out three-ring circus of blood, torture, rape and misogyny that literally paints the screen red with blood and white with semen. As a buildup to an Ichi vs. Kakihara showdown, Ichi is an arguably miserable protagonist, sniveling and whining and with enough personality issues to set a psychoanalyst up with steady work for life. Despite being a notorious killer, he cannot embrace his lifestyle, repressing issues stemming from deep-seeded violence (both real and imagined) in his past, amplified by his employer. His handler, cult director Shinya Tsukamoto in a solid performance, turns out his standard poker-faced performance as the creepy weirdo in virtually all films he acts in.
Despite the misleading title, the film's true star is Kakihara (played with unrestrained glee by stone-faced Tadanobu Asano) who dominates every scene in his garish pimp clothing and shockingly disfigured face. We follow Kakihara on a quest for violence, first searching for Anjo and eventually pursuing Ichi, the new provider of pain. Along the way, we are subjected to some of the most vile and horrifying torture sequences ever put to celluloid, including the most infamous sequence involving hanging a suspect by hooks in the skin of the back, piercing him repeatedly with six-inch needles and pouring hot oil over his skin. Some of the @#$% in this film will drop your jaw, no fooling.
Is Ichi the Killer is as violent, as misogynistic, as horrible as people say it is? Hell yes, but there's a method behind the madness. With Takashi Miike, there always is, but boy, does he make you work for them. Like his North American contemporaries, similar auters like David Cronenberg and David Lynch, Miike crafts vessels of discontent and anxiety, of deeply rooted fears and repressions given shape and form. Taken at face value, Ichi is depraved and so over-the-top as to be meaningless, but there is much more being told than a simple tale of yakuza violence and abuse. Indeed, calling Ichi the Killer a "violent" film only scratches the surface.
In Ichi we are offered more than simply violence for the sake of violence (although there is certainly plenty of that.) Rather, Ichi is a film about violence itself, a meditation on the nature of violence, how it infects and influences people's needs and desires. The film is a rumination on the nature of sadism and masochism and the inherent need for violence in the lives of the film's protagonists, both for themselves and for those around them. In Ichi and Kakihara we have two characters whose lives revolve around violence, but whose motivations and desires are diametrically opposite. Good or bad, violence is the central driving force behind every character in the film, like gasoline fueling a car engine.
To take the metaphor further, Ichi the Killer involves us, the audience, in the very thirst for violence that drives the protagonists. We are participants in the horrible spiral of torture, rape and sadism throughout, laughing at the over-the-top carnage during some sequences and wincing in utter revulsion during others. Some violence is good, and some violence is bad, and Ichi the Killer has both kinds in spades. Miike has created a film that asks the viewer, quite directly, to reflect on how violence makes them feel. Elated? Disgusted? Somewhere in between? Do we enjoy this cinematic violence done to us or done to other people, or do we recoil in horror? Ichi the Killer pushes the limits on censorship and over-the-top violence, but the true battle is fought on a deeply personal level. This is the kind of film whose images burn in your minds eye for months, even years after the fact; a film where the viewer is so desensitized through constant portrayals of violence, sex, abuse and torture that eventually, glee and amusement are the only natural response left.
Or, to approach it another way: Ichi the Killer is about our own messed-up society, about how we yearn for violence in all shapes and forms. As a social group, we have a need for endlessly violent imagery through all its media, both fiction and nonfiction, in our movies, our music, our news, et al. Miike exploits this desire in Ichiby overloading every single one of our senses until we have no idea what to think. By making violence the norm, and moments of non-violence shocking and unexpected, we are set up for the biggest joke of all.
Like a roller coaster ride, we are taken through scene after scene of escalating brutality, climaxing into the glorious finale of…broken expectations. Without spoiling anything, the ending sequence is much maligned by fans as a complete and utter letdown; but this is actually the final act of violence by Miike—this time against us. By twisting the end into something atypical and unexpected, we are denied the climax, the almost orgasmic bloodbath that no doubt we have come to expect during the film's near-endless escalations. We build and build towards a magnificent finale, and then are denied that which we have come to desire( even if only grudgingly). By withholding this release from the audience, Miike plays the sadist one last time.
Truth be told, I could go on and on about the merits of this film, endlessly break down themes, deconstruct the film to its most bare skeletal structure, but to little end. Until you have seen Ichi the Killer yourself, the point is moot. Horrifying and hilarious, it is a juggernaut of a film, rampaging through audience expectations of censorship and preconceived notions of entertainment, but a film that cannot be described at all in words. Good or bad, love it or hate it, you owe it to yourself to see this film at least once and decide for yourself the film's worth. You know, after you wipe the vomit up from your chin and take a long, cold shower.
Media Blasters has already released a single-disc version of Ichi the Killer, and to up the ante with the Blood Pack have served up a whole pile of dismembered body parts and supplementary materials worthy of high praise. The first disc is near-identical to the original single release, containing the uncut feature film, some trailers, a photo gallery and a commentary track with director Takashi Miike and manga artist/writer Hideo Yamamoto. Both men speak in Japanese with an English commentary subtitle track providing translation. The track is fantastic stuff, detailed and introspective, though often distracting to read dialogue that fails to match the on-screen action. The only new addition is a small interview with horror director Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel) who spends seven minutes gushing over Miike and his work. He acknowledges that films like Hostel would never have come to be without the influence of Takashi Miike upon his creative mind (he even puts Miike in Hostel with a quick cameo). Media Shock clearly is trying to market the film to like-minded fans, as Roth's name is splattered all over the packaging.
The transfer is essentially identical to the previous release, presenting Ichi the Killer with a slightly murky transfer, nebulously indistinct black levels, noticeable grain and washed-out colors. Unlike the previous release, the Blood Pack is flagged for progressive scan, though it hardly makes a difference here. Print damage is easily noticeable dotted throughout the film, far more than one would expect from a film barely five years old. Colors are often saturated to the point of distortion, especially reds. Outdoor shots fare much better than low-light shots, which compose much of the film. Truth be told, this is not a great looking presentation, but knowing Miike and his modus operandi of low-fidelity fast shooting, this is probably as good as we can expect this film to look on DVD.
As for audio, we practically get every option under the sun: both stereo and 5.1 English dubbed dialogue, as well as stereo and 5.1 Japanese tracks are available to choose from. The Japanese 5.1 track is loud and well-defined, with booming dialogue and strong front channels, with playful use of rear channels for ambient noises and creeping effects. With every body blow, the bass channel rumbles eagerly. The English variant is virtually the same, but dialogue is mixed quieter and often harder to hear. The stereo tracks lack the fidelity and impressive ambient effects of the surround, but gets the job done well enough. The English dub is pretty lousy, but dubbing Kakihara in a faux-Cockney accent is so hilarious it almost makes the English dub worth a listen. The music, an out-of-control cacophony of pounding drums and incoherent screaming has the frenetic pace of an acid-tripping bongo party gone into the wee hours of the morning, and marries with the bizarre film perfectly.
On disc two, we get the new material, including a ten-minute interview compilation entitled "The Cult of ICHI" featuring interviews with a diverse cross-section of authoritative types, including horror writer Jack Ketchum (The Girl Next Door), Fangoria writer Tony Timpone, actress Barbara Nedeljakova (Hostel) and others discussing the influence and infamy of Ichi. We also get a fifty-minute making-of featurette entitled "Memories of ICHI: The Making of Ichi the Killer" goes behind the scenes during filming with cast and crew, and probably offers the most value for the die-hard fan. It cracks me up to see how much fun everyone was having making such a messed up film—you wonder if they realized at the time what they were doing. In addition, a trailer reel for some of Miike's other films is included, which is a treasure trove for Miike fans. A mix of original Japanese and English trailers, ew get Fudoh, The Great Yokai War, Deadly Outlaw Rekka, Izo, The Way To Fight, Visitor Q, Family, One Missed Call, Bodygaurd Kiba, Ichi the Killer and Silver. These are fantastic if only to illustrate exactly how many genres Miike explores—everything from sexual perversion to children's fantasy, new wave Japanese horror to crazed yakuza crime sagas. Add to this a whole whack of interviews, about an hours worth with producer Dai Miyazaki, actors Sabu and Shinya Tsukamoto, Tadanobu Asano and Nao Omori in various combinations, and we round out the material nicely. Each interview can be viewed separately or with a "play all" feature. All in all, quite the solid offering of material—definitely enough to entice purchasers of the single-disc version to take a hard look at the Blood Pack.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In an ironic twist of fate, the ultimate act of sadism committed in Ichi the Killer: Blood Pack is by Media Blasters, upon the purchaser. In a sense, this "blood pack" is the ideal packaging for such a sadistic, challenging and masochistic film, because you have to suffer to even get the disc out of the packaging. Oh, sweet irony. Sure, a hundred points for style in having a freaking sack of stage blood masquerade as DVD packaging, but from a logistical standpoint, Ichi the Killer: Blood Pack is cruelly unfair.
I offer one important nugget of advice to you, dear readers: do not puncture the blood bag. Seriously, don't do it. I went over to Amazon and read customer reviews trashing this DVD into zero and one-star oblivion, telling sordid tales about how they tried to cut the blood bag to free the DVDs inside and ended up with red blood juice all over their house, their clothes, the DVDs themselves and in every bodily orifice possible. Hilarious reading material, the whole lot of it, but for the sake of common sense, I reiterate: do not puncture the blood bags. I assure you, your discs are not trapped behind layers of blood. The DVDs are accessible via a pre-made slot in the side. There is no need to panic and start attacking your DVD set frantically with a knife to "free" your DVDs.
Also (and thank you to Media Blasters for including this warning on the back of the packing, or else I myself might have been tempted!) please do not drink the contents of the aforementioned blood bag. Tempting, I know.
Ichi the Killer: Blood Pack indeed stands out as the definitive release of this film (blood bag-related issues aside). Die-hard aficionados will no doubt yearn to upgrade to lay lands on the second disc full of extras (and the blood bag, of course). However, for those okay skipping the supplements, the single disc version is near-identical in all other regards. A small amount of regret here; it would have been nice to see the film get a new remastered presentation.
Whether you hate him or admire him, Takashi Miike is a cinematic force to be reckoned with. You may not enjoy" Ichi the Killer, but that's perfectly normal—only the most hardened S&M aficionados would enjoy the film in connotations we commonly associate with the word "enjoy" Truth be told, I doubt Miike even intended for us to enjoy Ichi the Killer, only to react to it.
Films exist to stimulate emotional responses from their viewers, be them happy or sad, and in the case of Ichi the Killer, some mild form of flu-like nausea and disorientation. The layer of complexity, depth and psychoanalysis in Ichi the Killer runs deep and dark, but only for those brave enough to subject themselves to it.
Films like this don't come around every day, and for most people, this is a good thing. But for this Judge, Ichi the Killer remains one of the most challenging and rewarding cinematic horror experiences on the market today.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Media Blasters
• Commentary track with director Takashi Miike and manga artist/writer Hideo Yamamoto
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