Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Ichi the Killer (2001)

It's interesting to see how desensitised we've become in just over a decade. When Ichi the Killer (Japanese title: Koroshiya Ichi) was initially released, it was banned in several countries and was released after strict, heavy edits were performed in others. In 2013, I, an 18 year-old who looks his age, walked into a shop in Melbourne, Australia and bought an unedited director's cut of the film without being asked for ID. When I watched the film, while I certainly found it extremely violent and, at times, quite uncomfortable, it never even crossed my mind that this movie would have stirred up any controversy upon its release. While I don't think society's growing tolerance for ultraviolence ruined the film for me at all, it would have been fascinating to have watched it while living in the context of the values of the year 2001.

The reason I'm bringing all of this up is that, from the very first scene, Ichi the Killer delves into the portrayal of violence in media head-first. It's not afraid to show incredibly graphic acts of cruelty, but never does so without purpose. The story is set within the world of Tokyo's Yakuza, and details (as most Yakuza movies do) a conflict between gangs and the violence that comes from it. What's special about it is the two definitively different types of violence the film employs.

The main character of the film is not Ichi, as the title suggests, but Kakihara, a high-ranking member of Anjo's gang, and an outright sadomasochist. His character immediately stands out from the rest of the Yakuza members. He neglects to wear the standard business attire of the other members, instead opting for various outrageous and vibrant items of clothing, and he has his hair bleached white. In his introductory scene, we see him blowing cigarette smoke out of the cuts in his cheeks (no doubt he was an influence for Heath Ledger's Joker). He is a man who unashamedly wears his freakiness like a badge. Throughout the movie, we witness Kakihara take pure pleasure in committing brutal, oftentimes extensive acts of violence on people without a hint of guilt or regret. He doesn't hide this from himself or others, and is fully comfortable with what kind of person he is. To the audience, his confidence is charming, yet his behaviour horrifying.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Ichi. As wimpy as a person can be, Ichi is disgusted by sights of violence or pain (although he also finds them sexually arousing), and cries about almost anything. However, when enraged, he commits spontaneous acts of extreme violence, without any control over his own body. While not under his emotionally-charged fevers, he is a pathetic, immature man who is ashamed of his actions and easily manipulated. He is the very antithesis of Kakihara.

These two polar opposite characters are reversely paralleled by the violence they each commit. Kakihara's scenes are realistic, believable, yet completely over-the-top. Victims helplessly beg for mercy and forgiveness as he hangs them from a wall with hooks going through their skin while sticking needles in their face and pouring boiling water on their backs. These scenes are undeniably confronting, and the joy Kakihara feels from committing these acts is just as shocking as the acts themselves. Conversely, Ichi's scenes are executed with a cartoonish, splatter style. Limbs are chopped off willy-nilly and blood bursts out as if from a hose. His clumsy ways of murdering people come off as comical, even slapstick, and it really can't be taken seriously.

The contrast between the types of violence portrayed on screen and the characters committing the acts implores the audience to consider how they feel about how violence should be treated in media. As we are disgusted by images of brutalisation and torture, we are confronted with a man who relishes and lives for such behaviour. As we laugh at the exaggerated depiction of bodies being cut to ribbons through accidental outbursts, we are again confronted by a man who is absolutely revolted and devastated by them, and thus by such attitude towards a truly unfunny topic.

While Ichi the Killer's juxtaposition of the two types of violence and characters is an incredibly powerful way to convey a question to the audience in a balanced, unbiased manner, the rest of the film tends to lean to one side, which could arguably disrupt the goal of the entire movie. When it isn't dealing with a scene of violence, and is instead progressing the story and characters, it seems to be a relatively conventional, albeit stylish, Yakuza film. The problem with that is that it could be argued that, by the very nature of it being a crime film, it is advocating violence. In addition to this, the crime setting of the story makes Ichi's overwhelmingly cartoonish character seem out of place. Kakihara, while outrageous, fits in with the world the film is set in. Ichi, however, would feel far more at home in a Sushi Tycoon-esque splatter flick. This further enforces the notion that the film is expressing an attitude that's not very critical of violence in media, which somewhat nullifies the strength of the film posing a question rather than answering one.

There also seems to be a rather misogynistic portrayal of women throughout the film. There is not a single important, strong or multidimensional female character in the whole story. Every female is either beaten up, tortured, raped and/or killed or is being used as a tool for male characters to further their success. Of course, it can't be denied that Japan is a slightly more openly misogynistic society than western ones, and thus certain depictions of women might seem somewhat offensive to us. Also, the Yakuza follows a patriarchal structure, and the objectification and victimisation of women in Ichi the Killer may have been deliberately used to highlight the culture of organised crime. It could also be argued that brutalising women was used as an evocative way to further shock the audience, and the effectiveness of this can not be doubted. Needless to say, it made me feel uneasy, and not in a good (thought-provoking) way, like the violence did. Although perhaps all that proves is that I've become desensitised to the torture and victimisation of men, and could only be truly offended when the same acts were carried out on women.

In the end, despite its flaws of balance outside of its primary focus, Ichi the Killer is still a phenomenal film, able to make you nauseous one second and laugh out loud the next. It's uniqueness makes it hard to classify under one genre, or even sub-genre. Is it a crime thriller, horror, black comedy, splatter movie? It's all these things, and they're all executed wonderfully. On top of all of this it's slathered in an ever-present sense of style and character, with unusual colour schemes, outlandish characters, and bizarre set and costume design. It's by no means perfect, but it's still essential viewing, particularly for those it would offend the most.

Find me on Facebook here!
Follow me on Twitter here!

No comments:

Post a Comment