A borderline autistic, whose understanding of the world is dominated by his traumatic recollections of bullying and inability to stop a young woman being raped, Ichi (Shinya Tsukamoto) transforms into a lethal killing machine whenever he gets aroused, or upset.

After he is set to work on the Anjo gang by his mentor/conroller Jiji (Shinya Tsukamoto), it is only a matter of time before he, as "the ultimate sadist," comes face to face with Kakihara (Tanobano Asano), a psychotic gangster with a Joker-esque rictus grin and a face held together by piercings, who exists solely to dish out and receive pain...

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There are two simple responses to prolific enfant terrible Takashi Miike's screen adaptation of Hideo Yamamoto's ultra-violent cult manga Ichi The Killer - condemn it outright for its parade of tortures, rapes and mutilations, or celebrate it as a bold challenge to notions of political correctness and good taste for these selfsame attributes.

Both, however, are equally inadequate to the complexities of the work and its exploration of the contradictions inherent in the "love really hurts" notion/tagline. Matters are further complicated by its distinctive Japanese cultural context, in which, pornographic S&M scenarios most Western audiences would find extreme are commonplace and acceptable, whereas showing pubic hair is taboo.

To concentrate solely on Ichi's content - be it Kakihara suspending an ally on hooks, sticking skewers through his face and pouring boiling tempura over his back, or Ichi splitting a man in two with one blow of his bladed feet before turning his attentions to a girl the man was about to rape - neglects Miike's highly stylised, equally assaultive and frequently parodic/cartoonish approach to form, where little can be taken at face value.

Glib condemnation and praise also fails to recognise inherent ironies. The emotionally retarded, sexually frustrated Ichi is, after all, hardly a positive identification figure. He foregrounds the psychological immaturities that psychoanalytically minded critics would use in arguement, thereby transforming the film into something of an auto-critique that invites the viewer to reflect on his own motives for watching.

And then there is the curious fact that the film is less gory than it might have been. Yamamoto's manga includes imagery such as penis bisection by razor that even Miike has shied away from. Elsewhere the director sometimes avoids showing Ichi's murderous rampages directly, giving only the aftermath of one early bloodbath and the incidentals - a spray of blood through the open doorway, a severed face oozing down a wall - of another.

In sum, Ichi the Killer is a film of considerable depth, intelligence and accomplishment that marks a new high point of maturity and consistency in its author's work. The quality of Miike's achievement is made all the more remarkable when one considers the sheer quantity of his output, with no fewer than six other films in 2001 alone.

Reviewed on: 06 Dec 2003
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Ultra-violent film about an autistic-turned-killing machine.
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Director: Takashi Miike

Writer: Sakichi Satô, based on the comic book by Hideo Yamamoto.

Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Nao Omori, Shinya Tsukamoto, Paulyn Sun, Susumu Terajima, Shun Sugata, Toru Tezuka

Year: 2001

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Japan

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