Ichi the Killer: Blood Pack edition Review
In recent years, Takashi Miike seems to have slowed down. Back in 2002, Miike directed eight films but he only managed a paltry two in 2005. This year he seems to be getting back up to speed with three films already near completion. The sheer output of Miike is awesome, in the sixteen years he has been directing he has helmed more than seventy projects. Still it is not the quantity of his output alone that has drawn the attention that he has received internationally, he has also gained a reputation for being uncompromising and avoiding self-censorship. This is due to his failure to listen to the guardians of good taste, and his confirmed individuality. It has led him to portray topics like bestiality (Dead or Alive), incest as comedy (Visitor Q) and the assault on American TV mores that was Imprint. Other directors when faced with an opportunity of broadening their appeal on American TV take the money and tone it down, but Miike decided to test every taboo he could find. The Masters of Horror producers should have known better than to trust him to behave because they must have seen Ichi the Killer.
Ichi the Killer is an adaptation of Hideo Yamamoto's manga comic which is as committed to the chaos and violence of its story as any motion picture could be. The whole aesthetic of the film is wreathed in viscera and bodily fluids and the film is most definitely trying to up its violent game with every new scene. Interestingly the film does not attempt to glamorise the violence but to present it faithfully in all its nastiness, there are no amazing fight sequences with cool action, just plenty of killing and torture. The scenes of mayhem are presented in a way to maximise their impact on the audience and to create a certain kind of tension as the audience is simultaneously repelled at what they are seeing and excited at what horrors may be in store. The film litters destructive images from beginning to end that will take some time to fade from the viewers' memory - nipples are sliced off, a man is hung from hooks and boiling oil is poured on him, a pimp beats his woman black and blue whilst Ichi masturbates, a tongue is cut off and a man is cut in half (lengthways). As the film works to its conclusion we are awaiting an almost sexual climax of violence. I won't say how, but the film deliberately disappoints this expectation and the viewer is left with a feeling that mirrors one of the protagonists' sense of empty non-event as he is left to imagine the climax he wanted.
Even in giving the audience a progression of escalating violence, Miike defeats their desire and expectation for how his film should end. Consequently the viewer is left to either ignore their own bloodlust or to consider what this says about them - is the truth that violence is intoxicating and that they enjoy it, or that it is just a comic book film? I think Miike deliberately destroys the latter part of that question by first having his killer as a pathetic downtrodden sort who kills without sense, and then by giving him a disciple, a young boy, who finds out that Ichi is not worth admiring. Takeshi, the boy, initially sees Ichi kick a bully who has been on Takeshi's case and starts to idolise him only to find that being a fighter against bullies is not the real truth of Ichi at all. We are therefore left to recognise how our feelings mirror the masochist Kakihara's as he becomes more excited towards the end of the film, he gasps in wonder "I am scared" as his battle against Ichi comes close only to conclude "You've let me down".
Miike's intelligence with the material of this film is often lost in the appreciation of the mise en scene of the violence and a lot of Miike's fans seem to miss the irony of a violent film that ends in anticlimax and defeat. Miike gives the audience plenty to lose their bearings though as the editing is breakneck and the music pacey, and the black humour catches everyone off guard. At one point Kakihara cuts his tongue off as an apology Yakuza style, with a Teruo Ishii homage I think - "Not a finger or two will do" like in Female Yakuza Tale. The profusely bleeding Kakihara offers his tongue to the unbelieving and disgusted Yakuza boss he has offended who is by now cowering in his chair. It is hard not to laugh and to enjoy Kakihara's wit, a fact that keeps him interesting despite his endless cruelty. Miike also capture a brilliant comic approach to Ichi's carnage as the real action copies the cartoon as faces slide down walls and guts and organs decorate rooms. Miike's success in losing the audience in this violent aesthetic has brought charges of misogyny and irresponsibility, but the first accusation is a fact of the world he creates and the second forgets what he actually achieves. What Miike achieves in Ichi the Killer is a violent bloodbath which reminds the audience of their capacity for consuming carnage, and then he asserts how unfulfilling violence is in the final judgement. This is less palatable than the wisecracking violence of Bond films but more morally aware than those films ever have been.
Ichi the Killer is gruesome and unsettling, not so much for what it shows on screen as for what it shows the viewer in themselves. It is similar to Haneke's approach to violence in a film like Funny Games where he incites the audience to be offended, but Miike does this by not avoiding the aesthetics and obscenity of brutality. Haneke's film has a more principled stance but both films achieve their ends by showing the viewer what they are feeling and then leaving them with that to stew. Ichi the Killer is not the film where a man gets cut in half or hung from a ceiling by hooks, it is the film where you saw that and wanted even more. Not Miike's best film, but a damned fine one for those who can watch it through and are able to reflect on what they saw.
The Blood Bag edition is a two disc set which is packaged in a mocked up wallet shaped like said blood bag with two compartments for the two discs. The outer wall of the wallet contains a red liquid which is non toxic and is designed to act to cushion the discs in their compartments whilst keeping up the visual conceit. This wallet is further contained in a plastic and transparent dust box with DVD information printed on the back and the centre of the front cut out to display the bag. This packaging is quite a witty idea but the marketing exceeds its usefulness as the wallet is difficult to remove from the dust box without damaging the box, and the discs are virtually impossible to remove from the wallet without scratching on the plastic sides. The first thing I did after getting the discs out was to put them in sleeves and not try to put them back in the wallet and I would advise anyone buying this set, for anything other than display purposes, to do the same to prolong the life of the discs. I have reflected this in the scores for the extras and the overall package to the right.
The two discs are dual layer and disc one contains the film, some trailers, a photo gallery and an introduction to the film by Eli Roth. The transfer of the film is anamorphic and not at 1.85:1 as it says on the box but at 1.78:1 which is the same as Media Blaster's previous releases of the film. The film has a generally dark palette with brilliant use of lighting such as you see above, and because of this the contrast levels are very important to the presentation and I am happy to say these seem to be well handled here. The sharpness of the image is fine in the foreground but the image does lack some detail in the background of shots which could be down to the quality of the original print. The colours are balanced well and skin tones look appropriate inside and out during the film, grain is barely evident and edge enhancement is subtle. I have no way of comparing this to the other Ichi discs out there but I found this disc looked well if not perfect.
The film is given four soundtracks including two surround mixes. The English tracks are rather amusing for being dubbed in cockney English accents which means Kakihara sounds a little like Jason Statham, but the original Japanese is the way to listen to this film even if the DTS track from the Japanese release is not included here. All four tracks are mixed well and possess no obvious mastering problems or source imperfections that I noticed, both the English and Japanese surround tracks have the same background mixes and coverage. The surround tracks do use the rear speakers for directional effects and ambience, but the effects tend to be centred rather than from a particular side, much like a basic surround mix rather than the 5.1 tracks here. The same is true of dialogue which always comes from the centre or front speakers. There is little to choose between the stereo and 5.1 tracks but the 5.1 has the edge because of the sub-woofer track in a film where bass is essential for driving the action on. The subtitles are the yellow font kind and cover the Japanese language translation as well as the English dub.
Eli Roth's introduction pretty much amounts to him enthusing about Miike for seven minutes, but he does make an interesting point about Miike's prolific output. He compares it to the Hollywood system of the 30's and 40's where directors made a number of projects every year and likens Miike to Michael Curtiz in that in the midst of all his projects Curtiz did direct Casablanca. The commentary with the film is the same one as the previous MB release with the comic creator and Miike chatting with English subs about the film and their respective styles. Miike is very talkative here and we learn that Miike demanded Asano for the role of Kakihara and that Miike prefers less professional actors for certain roles so that performances are more naturalistic and less professional. Yamamoto is very appreciative of the film and quite deferential to the director. On the second disc, there is a ten minute piece where a variety of talking heads including Scott Spiegel, Lucky McKee and Chris D talk about what they love about the film which rather depressingly boils down to how great the violence is rather than an appreciation of the film's greater intent. The disc includes a making of documentary which follows Miike directing actors on set and includes pieces with Tsukamoto, Miike and Asano about the film. The scenes we see directed include Kakihara's tongue cutting, the hooks scene , the nipple torture and the climax of the film. Asano talks about feeling safe with Miike's vision and Tsukamoto talks about the leeway Miike gives actors. It is interesting to see Miike coaching his players in broad terms but leaving the specifics of their performances up to his cast. The disc is completed by a Miike trailer reel and further interviews with Sabu, Tsukamoto, Asano and producer Miyazaki. The highlight of the interviews is the nonplussed reactions of Sabu and Tsukamoto to some very stupid questioning at a press conference - "Are all directors nervous"!!! The trailer reel includes Fudoh, The Great Yokai War, Deadly Outlaw Rekka, Izo, Way to Fight, Visitor Q, Family, One Missed Call, Bodygaurd Kiba and Silver. This is a myriad of extras but my one quibble would be the lack of anything from Tom Mes whose fine book Agitator is the Miike bible. Mes would have given the presentation a bit more of a grown-up feel and allowed the film to be considered on a more critical level than the fan based contributions that come from everyone bar Chris D.
A torrent of extras and a novel idea for packaging is undermined by poor design that threatens the very discs that fans want to purchase. Miike purists will also baulk at the film being sold on Eli Roth's name too, given the disparity in talent between the two. Ichi the Killer is a great film for lovers of the extreme who will find some wisdom here if they want to reflect on the movie as well, if you do purchase this be careful with the discs and use the packaging as the paperweight it is more suitable as.