How do you turn what begins as a romantic comedy about a middle-aged widower who decides to hold auditions to find himself a new wife into a gory mindfuck that would shock even David Lynch? Ask Takashi Miike, whose viscerally intense “Audition” did just that, dealing with “issues of trust and betrayal between a man and a woman” and all kinds of messed up insanity – the giggly use of piano wire and acupuncture needles in the climax will haunt your nightmares for a long time.
What do you call a movie where the 10 minute incest opening scene is the tamest? Another day at work for Takashi Miike. In “Visitor Q”, the twisted Japanese director takes a shot at reality TV, except that the family depicted here is so dysfunctional that it makes The Osbournes look like the Brady Bunch! Shot on video with minimal flourishes, this is little more than an 80 minute succession of taboos being giddily ignored. Sex, drugs and violence abound, and then you’ve got a dude who likes to hit people behind the head with a rock, extreme lactating and the perils of raping a corpse. What’s most shocking is how absurdly entertaining all this amorality actually is! If you like your comedies pitch black, you can’t go wrong with this one.
What makes “Audition” and “Visitor Q” look like harmless chick flicks? “Ichi the Killer”, that’s what! This is an adaptation of the Hideo Yamamoto manga about a deeply disturbed young man who puts on a rubber super-heroish suit and “switchblade-shoes” and goes on a roaring rampage of revenge against anyone who reminds of the bullies who used to torment him. Through the manipulation of disgruntled Yakuza Jijii, Ichi’s murderous rampage is focused on Boss Anjo and his gang. This leads us to Kakihara, a sado-masochistic hipster gangster with surfer hair, an electric-purple long coat and the most insane piercings. He takes it upon himself to confront Ichi, not so much to avenge his boss than to get his kicks with this most reputed killer…
How do you begin to describe the raw power of a film like this? Maybe by suggesting that the subtitles are practically superfluous. Hearing thugs yelling in Japanese is its own reward and whatever plot and dialogue there is here is mostly inconsequential anyway. What makes “Ichi the Killer” such a riveting experience transcends language. It’s in the ballsy visuals, the breathless editing, the brutal sound mix, the iconic costume design, the intensely physical performances…
And then there’s the violence, which drives every inch of the film. Miike orchestrates massacre on dizzying levels, multiplying chopped limbs and geysers of blood way past what Tarantino’s Kill Bill could get away with. Big guns, big swords, hooks and needles go to work on everyone on screen in all sorts of shockingly inventive ways and it becomes increasingly clear that everyone making or watching this flick is going straight to hell!
Then again, Miike doesn’t just revel in splatter. He’s obviously aware of the impact his images have and he constantly fudges our expectations and reactions towards the violence, going back and forth between stylized, over the top violence and the stuff that’s truly horrifying because it feels all too real. A dude cutting his own tongue with a samurai sword, that’s pretty funny, but then Miike hits you with a scene in which a woman in tears gets beaten and raped and what “fun” you were having gets stuck in your throat… Unless you’re Kakihara, who finds violence “fun” and “cool” even and especially when it’s directed at him. He embodies the guilty pleasure movie audiences get out of screen violence, but without the guilt part.
Why exactly do we enjoy watching someone get his head hacked off? Because we know it’s make-believe? Because it feeds our primal instincts left dormant in this sanitized consumerist society? Maybe it’s simply the color red that turns us on? Whatever it is, Miike knows how to push those buttons as well as any filmmaker, and he does it expertly all through “Ichi the Killer”.