Takashi Miike reminds me of Go Nagai. They're both ferociously innovative and capable of absolutely anything, especially if it involves extremes of taste. Both are controversial to the point of being inflammatory. Both have known what it's like to be heavily censored and/or banned throughout the English-speaking world.
The difference between them though is that Nagai's more puerile and fixated on excess for its own sake, especially if it's pornographic. He's more cartoonish, and not just because he's working in manga and anime. Takashi Miike on the other hand just strikes me as a director whose natural inclination is to go as hard and extreme as he possibly can in every direction available to him. Miike made seven films in 2001, including this one, and that's not even particularly unusual for him since the following year he made eight. He's made jolly children's films, stomach-turning gorefests, moving historical dramas and Happiness of the Katakuris
. He's beyond categorisation. Even today he'll sometimes work in straight-to-video, because the censorship isn't as stringent and you can do more extreme material than you can in something meant for cinemas.
My favourite Miike story though involves his episode of Masters of Horror. This was an American anthology series that commissioned famous directors like John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper and Dario Argento. In 2005 these people asked Miike to do them an episode, which he did. It was deemed unbroadcastable and never shown, described by the show's creator as "the most disturbing film I've ever seen", although it's on the DVDs.
Ichi the Killer is the most notorious film of Takashi Miike and indeed of Japanese cinema to date. There are much sicker films out there, true, but they don't have its public profile. Like The Ring
and Battle Royale, it's one of those films that even people who don't know Japanese cinema are likely to have heard of. I watched the uncut version, by the way.
The story of Ichi the Killer invoves yakuza, psychologically disturbed characters, sexual perversion and really gross violence. The film's first scene involves a man punching a woman in the face until she's screaming and covered in blood, then raping her. However there's a man outside, watching through the window. Does he jump in and save her? Ahaha, no. Alternatively do the film's titles rise out of his spilled semen? Yes, they do. Miike used real semen in that shot, by the way. This scene is genuinely disturbing and the kind of thing you'd expect to be shot down in flames by any Western censor, but that's only the beginning. The film's main character is Kakihara, a bottle-blonde freak who looks as if he lost a fight with a barbed wire fence and does things to people (including himself) that turn the stomachs of even his fellow yakuza. The torture scene with a dozen metal hooks, a foot-long skewer and a pot of deep-frying shrimp was bad enough, but his apology afterwards is almost unwatchable. You know how yakuza apologise by cutting off one of their own fingers? With Kakihara it's not a finger.
Unbelievably though, Kakihara isn't Ichi. Yes, there's a killer out there even more sick than him. The first we see of Ichi's handiwork, the room's so blood-splattered that you'd think he must have butchered his victim on the ceiling and then swung him around up there for a while. There's almost a superhero vibe to Ichi, oddly, with him dressed in some kind of fetish outfit like Bryan Singer's X-Men and being closer psychologically to a vigilante than a gangster. You'll have to wait a long time (i.e. never) before you see Wolverine acting out scenes like Ichi's, but I can imagine it happening and it would be funny. Oh, and while we're talking about comic books, Kakihara has Joker-like facial injuries (but grosser) and at one point even dresses like him in a long purple coat. This film's based on a manga, incidentally.
Anyway, this is going to be too much for many people. It's pushing Tokyo Gore Police
levels of splatter at times, except that Miike's being deadly serious with it and only at one point did I feel things were getting silly. I didn't mind the hand-swallowing, but I didn't believe that the bodybuilder was taking off his clothes for any reason except to show the audience that he's a bodybuilder.
So far, so nasty. However there's a point to all this. Martin Scorsese will carefully knock down his gangster protagonists in the final act, but that's nothing to what Miike's doing here. These people are sick. We're talking dysfunctional sexual perversion. The finale is like the punchline to a shaggy dog story ("what did the sadist say to the masochist?") except way freakier. The movie is a character study of its monsters and what motivates them to live these lives of violence, which is some cases is because they're broken in the head and yet in other cases is due to career choice, loyalty and/or wanting to look after their son. The latter is what drives a yakuza played by Sabu (yes, the director Sabu), who'd have seemed like a nice guy if it hadn't been for the scene of him kicking a tortured woman to death because he's feeling grumpy.
There's a lot of unexpected character and depth to this film. I liked the twin policemen and their unexpected psychic link. I liked the randomly trilingual lady, played by a former Miss Singapore (Suen Kai-Kwan, aka. Alien Sun) who quit a job in business development to become an actress in Hong Kong and is fluent in English, Japanese, Cantonese and Mandarin. I particularly like the fact that the film held my attention throughout as a proper film with characters and a story, never degenerating into mere gore and shock value despite being over two hours long. Japanese gore-fests can sometimes get a bit boring, but this is a strong film. I'd even recommend it... although obviously not to everyone.