Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Ichi the Killer

Roger Ebert said of the Spiderman sequel: "Now this is what a superhero movie should be. Spiderman 2 believes in its story in the same way serious comic readers believe, when the adventures on the page express their own dreams and wishes...It's simply and poignantly a realization that being Spider-Man is a burden that Peter Parker is not entirely willing to bear." Now swap Ichi the "nice young man" that wants to rid the world of bullies and Ichi the Killer for Peter Parker and Spiderman and these remarks would still make sense - but you would have to start worrying about the "dreams and wishes" of all those manga readers.

This film has more "oh for fuck's sake!" moments than any I have ever seen. Anyone that walked out of Irréversible will find themselves heading for that exit again. It is surely unmatched anywhere in world cinema for its depraved exuberance. Redeeming features? Quality direction and cinematography guided by a dark sense of humour. Takashi Miike loads scenes of torture with the kind of pulchritude you associate with gentler fare like American Beauty. And in Kakihara a very memorable bad guy, styled like a deeply evil , sadomasochistic Dr Who. My stuffu phase may have to shift into reverse after this. Where can you go from here?

One of the things that fascinates me creatively about manga is the multi-genre nature of the format. Individual characters effectively go around in stylistic bubbles which identify them to particular audience targets. The comic version of Battle Royale mixes pervy panty shots and kick-ass karate with sappy romance. The aesthetics and the ethics seem to stick to the characters rather than the plot - in other words, there's no moral centre. Yet the late Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale (2002) seemed unable or unwilling to reproduce this technique cinematically.

There was a great piece on The Long Tail blog the other day, titled What is it with the Japanese and Robots? One of the comments on this posting offered the view that "Young Japanese men these days are the products of decades of impotent power-fantasizing...The Giant Robot, like most of Japanese modern pop culture, is rooted in the national experience of being the only country that was attacked with unanswerable nuclear weapons and then promptly demilitarized, after having had a strong warrior culture for centuries."

Cry-baby killer Ichi is himself the bearer of a strange moral duality - he wants to both save and rape his female fixations. I'm sure psychoanalysts and students of Japanese history and culture could have a field day with this. "Don't worry, from now on I'll beat you up", he reassures a girl whose pimp lies in two symmetrical slices at her bedside.

There was one non-gory scene which particularly struck me. One of the most resillient clichés of the action genre is the scenario where the hero finds himself forced to reveal his deadly abilities when, as an accidental bystander, he sees someone being harassed by a group of nasties. The initial intervention is polite but firm, but after provocation bad-guy butt gets kicked quite ferociously. Now Ichi happens into a just such a scene, but one with some disturbing differences. Carrying painful memories of his own experiences of bullying he intervenes when he witnesses a young kid being beaten up on by four of his peers. The gang leader tells Ichi to get lost and kicks over his bicycle. In a flash he's been downed by a vicious karate kick and lies moaning and crying on the ground while the others scram. Miike has reproduced the format faithfully, but his vision of an adult wreaking this sort of violent revenge on schoolkids makes his version anything but hackneyed. A nice twist in a movie that is generally quite twisted!

In conversation last night Miseryguts and I agreed that the Asian horror genre also has a thing about lifts. He remembers vividly the lift scene in the Pang brothers The Eye and I recalled other elevator-phobic incidents in Murakami's The Elephant Vanishes and in Strangers by Taichi Yamada, which I'm in the middle of right now.

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