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Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2002
Ahhh, boys will be (sick, twisted, violent) boys
Most folks in the movie business, from pointy-headed critics to pony-tailed producers, say they want "edge" -- that wonderful all-purpose buzzword that can mean everything from presenting the disease-of-the-week in a weepy TV drama to adding four-letter words to a kiddie cartoon. The problem with edge, however, is that it gets dull quickly in this age of information glut.
For decades, sex was the royal road to cinematic edginess. Now, with Internet and video porn-merchants catering to every kink, bed scenes that would have once had censors fumbling for their blue pencils look as risque as an aerobics class. Commercial filmmakers dare not go much further beyond the current limits, at least not until actors, audiences and ratings boards begin to regard the real thing as an acceptable thing. Not likely.
Edge-wise, violence has replaced sex as the last frontier -- and Takashi Miike knows it. A self-styled directorial outlaw with super-size ambition, energy and talent, Miike has rapidly upped the violence ante to heights that look, depending on one's point of view, sickening, awe-inspiring or absurd. I admit to being shocked by his "Audition," a brutally effective romance-cum-horror show about the perils of May-September love, especially if May happens to be a psychotic sadist. The last 30 minutes are like major eye surgery without anesthesia -- almost as painful for the spectator as the victim.
Despite the hints of fetishism in Miike's work -- he has the same kind of thing for body-piercing that Hitchcock had for icy blondes -- he has a comic and even humanistic side. He's like the naughty kid whose idea of fun is dreaming up neat tortures, but who would never think of wielding the pliers and meat skewers himself (save, perhaps, on the stray toad).
His latest assault on all that's decent -- and his claim to the movie-world-edginess title -- is "Koroshiya Ichi (Ichi the Killer)," a gang thriller based on a cult comic by Hideo Yamamoto. The premise has a "Revenge of the Nerds" appeal: A wimp has transformed himself into a deadly fighting machine, but stokes the fires of rage with tears of remembrance for boyhood humiliations. Though reminiscent of "Crying Freeman," a popular manga about a weeping hit man, "Koroshiya Ichi" adds a new, perverted twist: The hero climaxes each time he kills (and Miike, considerately, shows the results in closeup, starting with the opening credits).
Ichi's serious strangeness is only the beginning; it's as though Miike and his staff sat up nights topping each other with outrages designed to drive the more tender-minded, flushed and muttering, out of the theater. The splatter, however, is so over the top -- certain shots are a broom's-eye view of the slaughterhouse floor, reveling in the offal -- that the movie becomes a grotesque gaman taikai (endurance contest).
"Koroshiya Ichi" has an edge all right, but it's also irredeemably juvenile. The growing legion of Miike otaku will love it -- it lives up to his King of Cult rep and then some -- but then the average Miike otaku is a 19-year-old boy who spends too much time in his room.
That said, if you happen to share Miike's warped sense of humor (and to some extent, I am ashamed to say, I do), you will enjoy the way he propels the cartoony violence far, far beyond anything a Hollywood director would venture, even if his name happens to be Quentin Tarantino. Or the film will leave you staring at the screen in stony-eyed disgust. There's not much middle ground.
The story starts with a standard-enough gang-movie trope: The boss of the Anjo-gumi and his young lover are murdered, and the survivors, led by Anjo's hot-blooded top lieutenant, Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano), boil through Shinjuku in search of revenge. Because this is a Miike film, the victims are not only slaughtered, but sliced, diced and spattered from floor to ceiling. Included in the gang's three-man cleanup crew is Jijii (Shinya Tsukamoto), a shifty-eyed man of indeterminate age who takes a certain grim pleasure in his work.
There is, we discover, a reason: The hit man was Jijii's protege -- the aforementioned Ichi (Nao Omori), a doe-eyed shlump who works as a waiter in a coffee shop. Though Jijii's willing tool, Ichi is not a coldblooded killer, but a delicate type who was traumatized by bullies when he was a lad (or at least that's how he obsessively remembers it). He also happens to be in love with Sarah (Mai Goto), a pink-salon hostess who is brutalized by her pimp (Hoka Kinoshita). But while the pimp is beating Sarah to a monstrous pulp in their apartment, Ichi is standing outside, writhing in agony -- and ecstasy. The boy clearly has problems.
So does Kakihara, whose face is crisscrossed with scars and whose mouth splits into a huge, horrid rictus when he loosens the pins that hold the corners, like a demon in a folk tale. He pursues his boss's killer with an eerie calm, punctuated by eruptions of fiendishly inventive cruelty. When Jijii fingers a hood named Suzuki (Susumu Terashima) from an affiliate gang as the probable perp -- the Anjo gang stole Suzuki's profitable porn-video business -- Kakihara has him strung up with meat hooks, like a flying bat, and douses him with boiling oil. This is not a scene to see before your tempura dinner. Suzuki somehow survives this deep-fry -- and vows to kill every member of the Anjo gang.
At Jijii's urging, Ichi goes on more rampages, shredding his victims with a blade concealed in his boot. Meanwhile, Kakihara conducts his own investigation, using the services of a straight-arrow former cop (Sabu) who is prone to remorse -- and homicidal rage. As the body count mounts, we see a showdown coming: Ichi vs. Kakihara. The loser, it seems, will not sleep with the fishes, but be pureed into a bloody action painting.
Tsukamoto and Sabu, both acclaimed indie directors in their own right, are effective in their respective roles, adding a third, human dimension to their manga models. But it is Asano, as Kakihara, who is this extreme movie's grinning malevolent center. Usually cast as a quiet type who seethes with inner fire, Asano plays the flame-haired gang boss with a chilling psychopathic glee. If Miike had used him to better purpose, instead of diddling with prop innards, "Koroshiya Ichi" might have been more than the latest exhibit in his Traveling Geek Show.