It was only a month ago that I wrote about Takashi Miike’s latest incredible film, the thrilling samurai epic “Blade of the Immortal,” which earned a place on my top ten films list of last year. In that review, I also mentioned several of his early films that got him to this point, including the chilling “Audition” and another amazing samurai flick entitled “13 Assassins.” However, the early work that he is perhaps best known for is the utterly bizarre “Ichi the Killer,” which was based on the manga by Hideo Yamamoto. It’s gruesome, violent, darkly-funny, and is being re-released in a definitive remastered edition this week. As such, there’s no better time to go back and revisit it after several years in order to answer the question of whether this is a film that truly deserves this treatment, or if it’s an early stumbling block best left forgotten.
The film begins with the murder/disappearance of crimeboss Anjo, leaving his underlings to try to figure out what happened to him. Assuming he is still alive, gangmember Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano) begins his investigation by questioning Anjo’s girlfriend, but is soon approached by a former gangmember, Jijii (Shin’ya Tsukamoto), claiming that a rival named Suzuki (Susumu Terajima) must’ve kidnapped the boss. We’ve already seen from the start that the boss’s murder was credited to a mysterious killer named Ichi (Nao Ohmori), so Jijii’s misinformation is soon discovered, but only after Kakihara has thoroughly tortured Suzuki. Kakihara is expelled from the syndicate soon after, but he is joined by his entire gang, who continue to investigate Anjo’s disappearance. Eventually, a bizarre plot is uncovered involving Ichi, Jijii, and an attempt to turn rival gangs against each other through manipulation of memories and several murders. Will Kakihara and his fellow gangmembers be able to stop them before they too are killed?
On the outset, “Ichi the Killer” appears to have everything necessary to turn it into a rather fascinating mystery thriller. The plot involving the “missing” crimeboss is intriguing, as are the characters involved, including the eccentric Kakihara and the downright-odd Ichi. However, it’s an entirely different matter when it comes to the narrative’s execution. Despite having a story that could easily make for a pretty compelling journey, Miike and co. stretch it out and allow it to meander so much that interest in the outcome soon falls flat as you wait for it to come to its long-overdue and elongated conclusion.
It’s a shame because there are several things to like about it, including some fine performances, a smattering of darkly-amusing moments, and a good amount of over-the-top spurts of violence. Miike has been known to be a little excessive when it comes to runtimes lately, delivering films like his two recent samurai flicks that ran about 140 minutes each, but at least for those, it’s slightly justified because of the epic story. For the 130-minute “Ichi the Killer,” there’s no justification for it at all because the plot is rather simple, though told in a rather convoluted way with several superfluous characters (another pair of big issues with the narrative).
It does have something of a reputation as a cult film, but that would appear to be primarily because of its intense violent moments that include Ichi slicing a couple of throats, slicing someone completely in half (with laughably-bad CGI), and several instances of Kakihara torturing others. The problem here is that the violence doesn’t even serve the story all that much, making it seem like the only reason the film was made was to go all-out for these sequences in an attempt to make the audience uncomfortable. One thing’s for sure, it certainly wasn’t made for its lackluster tale of mystery.
In the end, perhaps this was simply a story that was better left on the page as a manga, for as a film, it just never becomes compelling due to its excessive meandering. Luckily, as we can clearly see, Miike went on to do much better things, leaving this film behind as a mere stepping stone on his way to greatness. Nonetheless, “Ichi the killer” is one of the films that put him on the map, so having done that, it served its purpose well enough.
“Ichi the Killer” returns to Blu-ray in a 1.85:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of mostly great quality. The film has been remastered in 4K (approved by Miike himself), but since it’s a slightly older film, there remains a fair amount of grain in certain scenes. However, it’s hardly bothersome, especially with most of the film looking fantastic. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is outstanding, giving you all of the dialogue, sound effects, and soundtrack in excellent quality. Overall, the film seems to have been given the best treatment it could possibly get, which will surely please the fans of this unusual cult flick.
Audio Commentary with Director Takashi Miike and Manga Artist/Writer Hideo Yamamoto: A commentary track that provides a few informative tidbits here and there, but is mostly somewhat bland.
Takashi Miike’s “Ichi the Killer” suffers from a heavily-meandering storyline, resulting in a tedious and stretched-out film that marks a low point in the director’s incredible career. It does boast some fine performances and a few amusing moments, but it’s simply never able to overcome the multiple issues in the narrative, leaving you with a rather forgettable work from a great director who would go on to prove that the best was yet to come.
Available on Definitive Remastered Edition Blu-ray starting tomorrow.