After watching this, I honestly wasn't sure if it was good or bad. For quite a while I'd thought it was worthless and that I was crazy to be watching another nasty Japanese straight-to-video film. I've since changed my mind. I've now decided that it's rather good, but in a way that's barely distinguishable from rubbish. The problem is that it's unpleasant, that its characters are unlikeable and that watching it is akin to taking a bath in rancid engine oil... but that's also the reason why it's good.
The first thing to notice is the title. Does "Ichi" mean anything to you? Hint: we're not talking about a blind swordswoman. Yes, it's a prequel to Takeshi Miike's Ichi the Killer
! Did you want to watch the young adventures of a pathetic, snivelling assassin who gets a hard-on from violence and ejaculates at the sight of killing? What, you didn't? Well, you'd better not watch 1-Ichi. I don't know if you'd call this an origin story since there's no psychological insight into what made Ichi such a pervert, but it's certainly showing us a significant chapter of his life en route to being the world's least popular X-Man. Again he's being played by Nao Omori, which is good because it means we recognise him, but is bad because Omori is obviously in his thirties and yet is supposedly still a high school student. Um, no. When I saw him hanging around in the vicinity of students, my first assumption was that this was meant to be some kind of "watch out for the paedophile!" statement.
Is Omori sympathetic? Hell, no. He likes stalking the school's biggest thug in order to watch people getting beaten up, but he's also such a loser that he gets bullied by eight-year-olds. However Omori ensures that we can understand his psychology, sick though it is, and the rest of the cast almost makes him look saintly.
The girls are sluts and bimbos. One of them gets raped and strangled, then later seems happy for the guy who did it to become her boyfriend. However at least this is better than the boys, who live in a world where the strong own the world because they can beat anyone they like to a bloody sobbing wreck. The most sympathetic character in the film is Mr Dai, played by a huge actor called Teah, who never thinks about anything except being number one at inflicting violence, nearly kills some boys just in the opening sequence and eventually turns out to be delusional. He has a couple of friends who follow him around and act like wannabe gangsters. He also acquires a rival called Onizame, played by Chihara Junia, who might be the most loathsome person I've ever seen in a movie. Can I think of anyone more despicable? Not offhand, no. These people aren't imaginative like the gangsters in Ichi the Killer
, but are instead just boring, sordid little maggots who measure their self-esteem in how efficient they are at hurting people.
If you think this sounds unpleasant, it is. Had any other film been this unsympathetic and distasteful, I'd be burning it at the stake. 1-Ichi though is doing it deliberately. It's making a point. It's talking about our attitudes towards violence, with everything from boxing arcade games (played by girls) to karate classes (of children). We're meant to be recoiling in horror from all the tossers on display and the film's deliberately setting them on what's going to be a collision course with Ichi.
What's more, the acting's quite good. Omori forces us almost to identify with Ichi, which took some doing. Teah does a rather impressive job of bringing alive his character and practically makes him the film's hero, despite the character's thuggish traits. I've no idea how effective he'd be as an actor if forced outside this narrow range, but in this role he's very good. Finally there's Chihara as Onizame, who's... bloody hell. He's evil, but I hesitate to use such a melodramatic word because he's also so real and grounded in the role.
None of that could be called fun, but the film isn't even pleasant to look at. It's straight-to-video, with one or two scenes that look amateurish. Every so often the director will also get bored and do something weird with the editing or a Photoshop filter, so you'll get what appears to be a time-loop and/or a music video with no music. I still don't see the point of all that. Overall, this is a distasteful film that's hard to engage with emotionally for most of the first hour and is probably unwatchable for anyone with any taste. You're not meant to enjoy it. There's every chance that you'll come away thinking it's cheap garbage with no reason to exist. However all this was clearly the director's intention and on its own terms, I'd say the film succeeded. You'll have to go a long way to find a stronger demolition job on macho glorification of violence. The more I think about this film, the more I respect it.