Butcher Block is a weekly series celebrating horror’s most extreme films and the minds behind them. Dedicated to graphic gore and splatter, each week will explore the dark, the disturbed, and the depraved in horror, and the blood and guts involved. For the films that use special effects of gore as an art form, and the fans that revel in the carnage, this series is for you.
Prolific director Takashi Miike has directed over 100 films in his career, spanning all genres from family-friendly films to dramas. But he’s most known for his boundary-pushing films that are centered around extreme violence, gore, and a warped sense of humor. There can be an almost cartoonish quality to just how graphic and bloody his scenes of violence and horror can get, and Ichi the Killer may be the best example of that. Perhaps the most controversial of all his films, and there’s quite a lot, Ichi the Killer cemented Miike’s reputation for torture and carnage.
Based on a manga, Ichi the Killer has two main characters, Ichi (Nao Omori) and Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano). The opening scene introduces us to both Ichi, and Miike’s unflinching style; Ichi lurks on the balcony of an apartment, masturbating while he watches the prostitute inside get assaulted by her pimp. His semen spills onto a house plant and forms the title card of the film. Yup. Ichi is a cowering, weak-willed character who’s progressively manipulated into becoming a reflexive, effective killer. Kakihara is a yakuza enforcer looking for his missing boss. He also happens to be a sadomasochist, and when Ichi’s gnarly body count starts piling up, Kakihara swoons over the potential pain Ichi could give him.
The kills in this movie are creative, painful, and very, very messy. The more Ichi is manipulated into killing, the more the body parts and blood fly. The yakuza clean up crew have to mop up not just the floors, but the walls and ceiling after Ichi has been unleashed. A master of pain, Kakihara delights in torturing victims for answers. At one point, he gets his hands on a rival yakuza leader and suspends his naked body up in the air with hooks. Then he skewers his mouth. Then, Kakihara pours scalding hot oil over him, until the skin blisters and peels off. It’s slow, methodical, and gruesome. There’s also a face severing and a groin to head slicing that serve as highlights to this tour de force of visceral gore.
Miike always seems to keep in mind the manga roots of the story, and the violence wavers from uncomfortably real to over the top comical silliness. It’s effective either way, thanks to special makeup effects artist Yuichi Matsui (The Grudge, Audition, Kill Bill: Vol. 1) and visual effects supervisor Misako Saka (One Missed Call, banned Masters of Horror episode “Imprint”). Between Miike’s style and the gory effects, Ichi the Killer is often a tough watch.
Naturally, the extreme violence has meant that Ichi the Killer has faced numerous bans in many countries since its release; the British Board of Film Classification took issue with the violence toward women in the film, and it refused to allow the film to release uncut. It was banned in Norway and Malaysia, and banned for distribution in Germany. Ichi the Killer premiered in 2001 at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the attendees were given barf bags prior to the screening, an effective and appropriate memento that some viewers might actually use when watching.
Ichi the Killer is Miike’s finest example of no holds barred extreme cinema. Though Kakihara is one of modern cinema’s most charismatic villains, the truth is that neither he nor Ichi are sympathetic at all. That’s more because Miike is making a point about how we consume violence in media. In other words, there’s more depth than meets the eye to this gorefest. It just might be hard to see it past the torrent of blood, viscera, and depraved mayhem.