By Angelica Chong, Staff Writer
A man dressed in a clunky black latex suit stands outside an apartment window masturbating as he watches a pimp brutalize and then rape a prostitute. The camera fixates uncompromisingly on her flailing limbs and swollen-purple face, but then jaggedly cuts to the voyeur as he accidentally hits the window and catches the attention of the pimp. He flees, and the only trace of his presence is a gooey smear of semen on a houseplant, dripping and vulgar. The music is frenetic and almost exuberant, a fitting accompaniment for a movie that thrills in its potential for and near certainty of violence.
This is the shockingly uncomfortable opening scene of “Ichi the Killer,” a 2001 Japanese crime-horror film directed by renowned filmmaker Takashi Miike. For only one week, the Metrograph theater will screen a 4K restoration of “Ichi the Killer,” which has now gained prominent cult status.
The opening scene sets expectations for the audience, who is now primed for the excessive violence that the film is infamous for. “Ichi the Killer” centers on a cat-and-mouse chase between Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano), a sadomasochistic yakuza enforcer, and Ichi (Nao Ōmori). Ichi, the aforementioned voyeur who is also another prolific killer, is emotionally and sexually manipulated by his handler, Jiji (Shinya Tsukamoto), who uses him as a weapon in his war against Kakihara over gang dominance. However, this intricate plot is left by the wayside in favor of macabre inflictions of bodily harm, from lopped-off limbs to gushing guts to skewered faces. These are scenes that are meant to shock and disgust, but are improbably funny because of their sheer ludicrousness.
In a scene where Kakihara severs his own tongue with a knife and immediately proceeds to answer a call — comically, because of his newly shortened appendage — he defies both audience belief and the realities of blood loss. In another one, he unpins the slits that are cut into the sides of his mouth and, in a fiend-like manner, eats the fist of a man who tries to punch him in the face. Compounded by the film’s explicit revelry in the ridiculousness of it all, from a jangly cheerful score to the over-the-top swooning from everyone else, it is clear that these are caricatures of violence, a wink-nudge to the audience that this is a performance of cinematic conflict, hyper-stylized and sharpened for visual impact.
Conversely, the scenes that hit the closest to home are the most understated ones, the ones that aren’t presented front-and-center as a set piece, such as when Ichi kills the pimp and threatens the then-grateful prostitute with rape. Chillingly, the most realistic and frightening depictions of violence in the film are the ones that, cinematically, don’t go too far; tethered to reality, they ground the viewers and force their complicity. I felt especially discomfited when I realized that the most horrific scenes were the ones where violence was being casually inflicted against women, perhaps because it’s something that’s oddly familiar in an otherwise bizarre world where we are supposed to accept yakuza have the fashion sense of David Bowie and limbs can be torn off bodies with bare hands. In such an unbelievable world, throwaway violence against women remains completely believable, conspicuously so.
After two hours of the body-horror and comic nature of exaggeratedly spurting jugulars and men split in half by blades, it was not hard to become desensitized to these obviously performative acts. However, things like Ichi deciding to kill a girl to fulfil his past traumatic sexual experiences, because he knows now that she “wants it,” or a yakuza kicking to prostitute to death for not replying to his offer of water after his boss has tortured her were genuinely startling because they also made sense when taken out of the context of the film and are presented in real life. We are perhaps meant to view them just like the other acts of violence, ridiculous responses and overreactions that fit in with the outlandish yet internally coherent set of behaviors that governs the film and its audience’s expectations, but I cannot help but feel they hit too close to home. It is debatable if the film meant to make a strategic point about how we conceptualize violence against women, but it was certainly what stood out to me, beyond even its host of sexually repressed, psychologically disturbed characters.
It is difficult to deem “Ichi the Killer” an enjoyable film, but it is one that is notorious for the wrong reasons; forget the criticisms of its graphic torture scenes, which are too unbelievable to resonate, and pay attention instead to when it’s at its quietest and seemingly most mundane — that is where its true horror lies.
“Ichi the Killer” opens for a limited engagement at the Metrograph at 7 Ludlow St. on Friday, Nov. 10.