Ichi the Killer has a prequel. A glimpse into the beginnings of one of the strangest, yet most compelling characters borne out of subversive or extreme cinema. The first Ichi was a testament to the beauty of the weird, an epithet to the outrageous. While an interpretation of a popular manga, Ichi the Killer was kissed with the creative cunning of a man all too well known to most genre fans, Takashi Miike. His gonzo style and flair for the freakish made the film an instant classic. It has a kinetic rhythm that is hard to defeat. The film made the most of wolf in sheepish clothing Ichi, keeping him mysterious and deadly, while at the same time odd. Ichi the Killer may not be a movie for everyone, but those who do enjoy it seem to enjoy it a lot. Which is why the prequel is such a monstrous and enigmatic problem.
Had Ichi the Killer never existed, had Miike become a preschool teacher, or had Hideo Yamamoto fallen into love with a daughter of an oil tycoon and written romance novels, maybe then 1-Ichi would not have to play up to the brotherly behemoth that is its predecessor. Maybe the film then would be a bit more . . . something. I cannot tell you why, but the film WANTS to be everything its follow-up is but at the same time tries so hard not to be. It differs in a lot of ways, but with the soul of the film being Ichi himself, it cannot break free of the original concept framework. It cannot break out and be its own beast. Each time we see the cherubic face of Nao Omori (back to play Ichi once more), we recall the frenzy that will ensue and somehow yearn for it.
This internal pleading is what compels you to watch 1-Ichi, but beware; you may be left holding your head, anxiously awaiting more only to not find it.
The movie is not bad at all. It is a serious character study and social examination of a world that parallels the brother-eat-brother world of the Yakuza (Japan's native organized crime group) very well, a world of high school brimming with gangs, bullies, and girls. The film is riddled with complex yet simple characters who neither offend nor remain memorable for too long. Almost everyone in the cast is much older than what they are supposed to be according to the script, especially Nao Omori. His once smooth face is showing lines and wear. Whether this is a lack of makeup or the different style of film or light, it gives him an appearance that is much more advanced than the two years between the filming of this film and Miike’s Ichi
Aside from the age discrepancy, the film has its strength in its cast and their performances. It is comforting to the soul that Nao reprises the role. Recasting him would have been the death of the movie on conception. Sorry to do this, but he IS Ichi. No one else will ever hold that crown. Nao’s face and demeanor have been fused with the very image of a crying, rage ridden, repressed, ejaculating killer. He sniffles and weeps with conviction. Yet within we all know what lies asleep, and when it does show its ugly head, when the killer in Ichi is awakened, it does so with the same temper tantrum of uncontrolled unwillingness. Ichi just wants to be alone; he doesn’t want to kill. He is a gentle soul, a free spirit, a lover of subtle beauty. Ichi has a childlike quality that is irresistible, and this is his downfall.
The story in 1-Ichi revolves around Mr. Dai, a bully who prides himself on being the best fighter in school. Dai is played by an actor named Teah, a veteran of Miike’s impossible worlds in Dead or Alive 2. Dai is the type of character who could be just a one-dimensional creation – all fists and fury. But in a similar twist recalling the sheriff from Blazing Saddles, he has done it all, seen it all, and has grown bored with beating up and nearly killing the same kids over and over again. Dai is down and out, at least emotionally. His fists hit like bricks, but his face is flaccid. He has no love for this anymore. He is empty, until . . .
During a fight one day he spies Ichi watching him mash and mangle. Dai is intrigued by Ichi; he feels the innate power to Ichi and wants so desperately to unleash it. Dai senses the possibility that he is no longer #1 at the school. The alpha male has a challenger; yet, Ichi, for all Dai’s taunts, just will not provide the promised pummeling. Perhaps it's because Ichi senses that Dai is a good kid, or perhaps it's because Ichi is sexually attracted to Dai, but Dai just cannot hit the right buttons, the sick buttons to throw Ichi into that sexual transgressive state of uber-overdrive kicking and spewing semen – killing and coming – the Ichi we all know and love.
This stalemate between Dai’s wants for Ichi and Ichi’s impotence is shattered when Onizame, a new kid, comes to school. Very well trained in Hapkido, Onizame is a force to be reckoned with. He is base and degenerate, not following any rules or codes of honor like the valiant Dai. In a school where there is no authority at all (and I mean this; there are NO teachers or adults portrayed in the film), Onizame is allowed to rule supreme. He takes what he wants and is happy to do so. Kôji Chihara chillingly plays Onizame. He has a smug wit about him; he delivers the crunching attacks on the school with zeal and flair. Onizame senses the power in Ichi. Unwittingly he is the only one present when it is finally unleashed, and he wants Ichi to fight him as well. This creates the perfect love triangle, well kinda.
The film is directed by Masato Tanno. Tanno used to be Miike’s assistant director on such films as the first Ichi and several Dead or Alive films. Tanno’s approach to the film is far more restrained than Miike’s. The sets are clean and spare. The characters are subdued. The fights are filmed with bone crunching effect, especially some of the Hapkido twisting moves done by Onizame. Where Miike kept the violence to gore and cuts, Tanno keeps it in your face and packs it in your ears with an unflinching lingering on the destruction to the internal skeletal structure. Grimace inducing grindhouse cinema at its ghastly best.
Unearthed has packaged the film with a sparse set of features. There is a wonderful interview with Tanno and Miike sitting down to discuss the film and what its merits are. Miike is one twitchy fucker. You can see his mind just not wanting to sit still; no wonder the guy makes about 20 films a year. Tanno looks happy to be there but nervous. He even comes out and tells you he's nervous, not because of being with Miike again, but because usually their conversations devolve into 4th grade potty humor, and he was apprehensive of that occurring again for the disc!
Is 1-Ichi a good film? Yes. Is it the same kind of extreme film that warrants attention by exploitation lovers? Yes. Completeists? Yes. What it lacks is all due to comparisons to Miike’s original. Lovers of the wacky world wrought in the first will be woeful. This is not Ichi II. Nor is it a redux.. The movie works in its own right, cascading to a climax that is the ultimate build-up. We leave this movie wanting to see the next. We want to know more about this man, this demon-filled boy who seems to have something buried within him. As soon as 1-Ichi is over, one finds himself reaching for the sequel. And when that sequel is Ichi the Killer, that may not be a bad thing at all!
Directed by Masato Tanno
Starring Nao Omori, Teah, Kôji Chihara, Eiki Kitamura, Yuki Oikawa
Japanese language with removable English subtitles
Takashi Miike and Masato Tanno one-on-one interview
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