I first experienced a Takashi Miike film at the 2002 Seattle Film Festival with Miike in attendance. He was calm, almost sedate. He sat through the screenings wearing big black sunglasses; he answered questions after the screenings and was a model of civility. His films, on the other hand, carried a high-level of insanity laced with a bizarre and subtle sense of humor. If I remember correctly, there were a few walkouts who were overwhelmed by the remaining audience members' screams of shock and loud bursts of electric, nervous laughter. Since then I've kept an eye out for his films, many of which are brilliant, and almost always in some twisted original way. I haven't seen all of his films (I don't know of anyone who has -- the man is beyond prolific; it was rumored that for a time Miike was directing four to seven films a year), but what I have seen has impressed me.
Currently there is a Takashi Miike Film Festival at the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles running from January through February. So if you're in LA and up for a unique experience from a filmmaker, I'd say run, don't walk, to these showings.
Ichi the Killer, screening February 10th, is most certainly one of his most anarchistic. Ichi, along with Visitor Q, Fudoh, and possibly Audition, are the epitome of extreme cinema no matter who's keeping score or making the list. If you disagree, I'd sure like to hear what movies you think are extreme. But first, give 'ol Miike a go and then get back to me.
Ichi, based on a manga of the same name, is a meditation on masochism and sadomasochism in which no one is spared, man or woman. The base story centers on a Yakuza named Kakihara who is searching through the underworld for his boss who has disappeared along with three hundred million yen.
What Kakihara doesn't know is that an ex-cop is using a mentally bent character named Ichi to kill various Yakuza in order to create chaos among the clans. When Ichi goes on search-and-destroy missions he dresses in a black padded suit like a superhero; when he kills he weeps; and often times violence gives him a sexual release... and this is where the movie begins, with the title of the film rising out of said release Ichi leaves behind. Now if that freaks you out, for the love of all that's holy, don't go any further because honest to god that really is the opening salvo.
A theory I happen to agree with is that the Ichi character is the most twisted rendition of Batman ever put to screen (or page). The characters fit, the wardrobes fit, and the idea that it came from a manga, in my mind, makes it fit. If ever the Joker told an uncensored tale of his love/hate relationship with Batman this would be it, and that, I think, is the key to the film.
What are the similarities? Ichi, like Batman, dresses in a bizarre black outfit. Ichi works as an arm of the law by answering to ex-cop Jijii. Kakihara is the underboss that scares the bejeezus out of everyone, even the Yakuza, and he dresses in outlandish gaudy suits. He also has scars leading out from his mouth, directly reflecting the look of the Joker. With Kakihara we get the Joker from The Killing Joke, Arkham Asylum, and The Dark Knight Returns.
There might be some grumbles to this theory - mainly, with the idea that the Joker isn't nearly as depraved as Kakihara. I would disagree. The Joker is that depraved; we just never get to see it. In comic form, the real insanity of the Joker's actions are hidden in the gutters of the comic pages. With Ichi it's there front and center; the audience can turn away if they like, but there will be no care taken by the film to screen or temper the wickedness for sensitive eyes.
Another grumble might be that Ichi isn't daring, brave, or driven to justice as Batman is. The truth is if the Joker told the story of Batman - might Bruce Wayne not have killed his parents? Think about that. In the Joker's world how hilarious would it be for the Dark Knight of Justice to have been the cause of the sick twist that removed him from his own happy home life to begin with? Top it off with Batman never being up to the task of ending their conflict and the fact that he is a mentally cracked sissy for being unable to do so -- this all seems to fit with the world view the Joker would hold.
The Sphincter Clenching Factor: Where to begin with this one? My partner, a very adventurous moviegoer, refused to sit down and re-watch this one with me. I would guess it's the violence towards women that got to her and I can certainly understand that point. The camera doesn't turn away simply because it's a woman on the receiving end and that very nearly becomes unbearable to watch. Only when a slight bit of humor is interjected does it once again open back up as a film.
It is revealed that Kakihara needs to find his boss because The Boss is the only one who can beat him to the extreme that Kakihara needs (or enjoys). When he becomes aware of the carnage that Ichi is leaving in his wake, he's enthralled at the thought of being put under Ichi's thumb. Death is what Kakihara wants and it's from the mythically brutal Ichi that he demands it. Along the way there are hooks, metal pins, full body oil burns, and many, many, body parts cut off - all in the name of good fun and insanity.
Stephen Spielberg is said to make some of the best roller-coaster rides in all of cinema and I cannot disagree, but in my mind once you've seen a few of his most recent films, they all begin to look a bit the same. Maybe not with camera work or editing style, but with the bookended opening/closing and at least the main characters' story arc. Much like a Michael Crichton book, you can guess where it will take you and a Hollywood happy ending is always guaranteed. Ichi, and most of Miike's works, are the flip side to that coin.
The only thing guaranteed with a Miike film is that there will be images the likes of which you have never seen and that you will indeed be on a roller coaster from opening to closing frame. Oftentimes, it is said that Miike only takes one take to keep his actors and the scenes fresh and sharp. I can see that theory at work with Ichi: here is a true horror film, one that feels as if no one is at the wheel, and that the tires are off the road and the mirrors have been snapped off by the forest of trees slamming past at a vertiginous pace. This is film at its most raw.