Ichi the Killer

In 1997 the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) showed Shinjuku Triad Society (1996), the first film directed by Miike Takashi to be seen outside Japan, or at least outside Japan in the civilised surroundings of a film festival. In his program note Tony Rayns warned the audience that they were going to see a film of unusually extreme and unedifying subject matter. They were also warned that the then unknown director had not attempted to downplay the violence.

A year later, Vancouver presented three more of Miike’s films and each succeeding year since there has been another selection of his latest work. A selection because even when two or three films by the director have been shown, that number often represents merely half of his annual output. Even the Internet Movie Database has a little trouble keeping up with Miike largely because he seems to be happy to work wherever and whenever. And if whenever means working on digital video as part of a series of films, (which have been grouped together as Sex in Tokyo) produced by Arakawa Reiko using generally unsung young talent, then so be it.

Visitor Q (2000), Miike’s contribution to Arakawa’s remarkable series of films (which also includes contributions by Shinohara Testsuo, Hiroki Ryuichi and Shiota Akihiko), runs only 84 minutes but packs quite a punch. The capacity plus house at VIFF 2001 had a high sense of anticipation, no doubt their curiosity driven by Tony Rayns’ program note which bluntly stated “of the five or six movies Miike made last year Visitor Q is the most offensive”. You can’t beat a line like that to create a line outside a movie theatre at a festival. Yet the film is also one of the smartest and funniest takes on familial relations you’ll ever find. Let’s start with just a few of the elements. Mother is regularly beaten by her son, who in turn is bullied at school. She also prostitutes herself for heroin. Daughter is working as a teenage hooker and indulging in a little incest as well. Into this maelstrom of dysfunctionality steps the eponymous Visitor Q, first sighted casually beating father over the back of the head with a handy rock. This endears Visitor Q sufficiently to the old man that he brings home, makes him one of the family and allows him to change their lives. Think Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968) and think of those supposedly subversive movies about Japanese families and you get the idea. But as usual, Miike takes it further, makes it funnier, and puts the audience on another of his rollercoasters where you sit there half in awe and half in complete disbelief.

Which brings us to Ichi the Killer (2001). This was an altogether grander piece of filmmaking. Made on 35mm as a Japanese, Hong Kong, South Korea co-production, the production values are of a much higher order. They have to be when Miike wants to show us characters literally sliced in half or suspended from the ceiling by a series of very large hooks through the skin. Based on a manga, the film’s hero is a slightly dim young man who under hypnosis becomes a killing machine. Finally he comes up against a masochistic gang boss. Masochism to the extreme that is. This is a guy who endures pain to a level that has us wincing. Wincing so much that the producers are a little worried that Ichi the Killer may become one of those notorious films maudit that everyone has heard about and no one has seen because the sensibilities of even the most hardened distributors, let alone censors, have ensured its absence in the public arena. Yet it’s enthralling filmmaking. Miike makes no attempt to do anything too fancy. No slow motion or artistic effects, no moralising, nothing that might just give you a moment of relief. Sure it’s only a yakuza movie and so you can dismiss the mayhem as part of a hermetic world, but it’s one you won’t forget quickly

I arrived in Vancouver 2001 after the screenings of Miike’s other entry Dead or Alive 2: Birds (2000) but I haven’t yet seen the first Dead or Alive (1999). Nor have I seen the third instalment that was recently completed. Miike is genuinely hard to keep up with from this remote outpost but it’s probably almost as difficult in Japan where he moves between TV, low budget filmmaking and the mainstream quite seamlessly. He even has a role as official filmmaker for his rural prefecture.

The score on Miike for Australian audiences thus far is a screening of The Bird People in China (1998) at the 1999 Melbourne International Film Festival, screenings of Audition (1999) at the 2000 Melbourne and Brisbane International Festivals and that is that. There are now close to three dozen Miike films of varying kinds out there that have yet to cross our paths.

About The Author

These days Geoff Gardner blogs away on matters of film interest. He was once the Director of the Melbourne Film Festival and once also a film distributor. His thoughts can be found at http://filmalert101.blogspot.com.au