As a culture, we get de-sensitized to shock and outrage remarkably quickly. In its day, the mere mention of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was sufficient to cause nannies and small animals to run away in fright. Now it seems relatively mainstream. That’s not true for Ichi. Sixteen years after they handed out promotional vomit bags for its TIFF screens, the notorious film still feels pretty extreme. Without question, there will be blood and other bodily fluids when Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer opens this Friday at the Metrograph, in a digitally restored uncensored director’s cut.
The Anjo and Funaki gangs are at war, but it is really the mysterious crime scene cleaner Jijii, who is pulling the strings. His weapon of choice is the luggish looking Ichi, whom he has profoundly warped, both emotionally and sexually, through hypnotic suggestion. Jijii has him convinced the various yakuza he slices up are the bullies who supposedly tormented him in middle school.
The Anjo gang is still reeling from the presumed murder of their boss, but they still have some incredibly lethal killers hunting Ichi. The creepily sadomasochistic and wildly unstable Kakihara represents the new nihilistic breed of yakuza, whereas Takayama gruffly holds up old school values, as does his recruit, Kaneko, a disgraced former policeman.
ITK remains controversial for a reason. There are explicit scenes of sexual violence and torture that pull no punches and go on for a considerable length of time. Again, it makes supposed shockers like Last Tango in Paris and The Human Centipede look like Merchant and Ivory’s garden party.
Yet, ITK still functions as a twisty and intriguing yakuza film. Shun Sugata and Hiroshi Kobayashi are both terrific as Takayama and Kaneko. There is something deeply compelling about them, as they try to navigate a world that has lost its sanity and sense of decency. On the other hand, Tadanobu Asano’s portrayal of Kakihara is a deep dive into perversion and madness like we had never seen from him before and can surely never possibly see again. Plus, Paulyn Sun, a.k.a. Alien Sun, might just be the fiercest femme fatale ever, who meets an exceptionally brutal end (seriously, how many times do we need to warn sensitive viewers out there?). Perhaps the weakest link is actually Nao Ohmori as the emotionally stunted Ichi. Whenever he enters the picture, we can’t wait for him to exit, for a whole host of reasons.