Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Ichi and Me:
Some Thoughts About Tokyo Shock's
New Ichi the Killer DVD...

Hey, I'm on a new DVD!

Following my humble participation in the likes of Barrel Entertainment's Last House on Dead End Street (I painted the cover), Paramount's DVD release of Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik (I blather on the bonus features), Blue Underground's The Pyjama Girl Case (packaged with a minicomic featuring Eddie Campbell's two Taboo-published "Pyjama Girl" comic stories, reprinting my own Taboo 1 cover painting), Heretic's double-punch October 2006 release of The Last Broadcast (with the Jersey Devil minicomic, produced by the CCS graduates between their first and second year at the school, and my inside-cover painting as a bonus 'print') and Head Trauma (Lance Weiler's gem featuring the faux-Christian comic my son Daniel and I drew), I pop up this month on Media Blaster's cutting-edge Tokyo Shock imprint's brand-new, two-disc re-release of Takahi Miike's Ichi the Killer (2001).
  • (Here's the Media Blasters website, which is only for those of you with high-speed broadband access; lots of trailers, info, etc. on all their DVDs, including the new Ichi release.)

  • It happened like this: Mike Dobbs and I went to the most recent Worcester, MA Rock'n'Shock horror con, and right across from the table we shared with Marty Langford and his amigos (promoting Marty's most recent feature, Magdalena's Brain, from Heretic and highly recommended!) was Carl Marano, who I hadn't seen since Mike and I used to attend the NJ Chiller Theater conventions. Carl and I chatted and caught up, and Carl asked if I'd be up for being interviewed on video for their upcoming Ichi the Killer re-release.

    Now, Ichi is among my personal favorites of Japanese director Takashi Miike (Audition, the Dead or Alive trilogy, The Happiness of the Katakuris, Visitor Q, etc.)'s creations. Nobody goes over the top like Miike, and Ichi was and remains one of the most extreme (and extremely graphic) films I've ever seen; it's also a kick-ass film, mayhem aside. I happily agreed to talk to Carl and his Fever Dreams business partner John Carchietta on-camera, and I guess they were happy with what I had to say -- because yesterday's mail brought my comp copy of Tokyo Shock's new "Collector's Blood Bag" edition of Ichi the Killer to my P.O. box!

    I popped in the bonus features disc, and sure enough, I made the final cut! I'm one of the first folks onscreen in "The Cult of Ichi" featurette, along with novelist and 'Gentleman Jim' of horror Jack Ketchum (hey, Dallas!), my Fangoria and Gorezone editor of yore Tony Timpone, director Scott Spiegel (Intruder, etc.), and many others who were forever altered by their screen encounters with Ichi.

    What is Ichi? How extreme is it?

    Ichi the Killer
    (2001, original title: Koroshiya Ichi, aka Koroshiya 1) was adapted by Miike and screenwriter Sakichi Sato from the horrific yakuza manga by Hideo Yamamoto, which I had read but never collected. Though I'd seen a few of Miike's films, nothing prepared me for the incredible ferocity of Ichi -- the fusion of sadomasochistic love and depravity, mutilation (including self-mutilation), kinetic yakuza mayhem and almost unbearable torture sequences culminating in dreaded but still unimaginable consequences left me punch-drunk but energized and determined to track down everything I could by Miike. This was fearless, zealous, relentless filmmaking of the highest order; it wasn't the gore quotient that left me so drained and giddy, it was Miike's balls-to-the-wall cinematic chops, as invigorating a sensibility as any I'd experienced since Chas Balun first turned me on to Peter Jackson (via dupes of Bad Taste, Jackson's first film). Ichi was truly relentless, risk-taking and intoxicating for its audacity and straight-for-the-jugular assault on everything I thought possible, and impossible, in a movie.

    It's not the carnage per se, though that's mind-blowing in and of itself: it's the weird, compelling characters, the earnest intensity of the story, and the all-consuming, unnerving quest of a seriously twisted yakuza named Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano) that burned the film indelibly into my consciousness; that's Asano as Kakihara, bleached-blonde with an ear-to-ear slash extending his grin, whose image 'sold' the film worldwide.

    The titular character, Ichi (Nao Omori), is a traumatized, child-like borderline-lunatic yakuza ordered (by mastermind Jijii, played by Shinya Tsukamoto, director of the delirious classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man) to kill Kakihara's boss Anjo. Jijii's ultimate goal is to turn all of Japan's gangsters against one another, and he pits Ichi and the uber-sadistic Kakihara against one another, counting on the street holocaust that follows.

    Initially refusing to believe Anjo is indeed dead, Kakihara is tricked by Jijii into torturing a rival yakuza with such savagery that he is subsequently exiled from the syndicate. Now 'orphaned' and completely rogue, Kakihara sets out to find the man responsible for his plight -- not for revenge in the traditional sense. No, Kakihara is perversely drawn to Ichi an alluring power figure, a possible figure of redemption and salvation. Kakihara savors the chaos and carnage Ichi creates, and longs to experience the fusion of pleasure and pain he believes Ichi alone can deliver -- personally, to him.

    For most Western viewers, Ichi extends the sadomasochistic horrors first popularized by Clive Barker's Hellraiser, though truth be told plenty of macho westerns were fueled by this kind of kinky shit for decades. There's also an argument to be made for Chester Gould's celebrated Dick Tracy comic strip laying bedrock for Miike and Sato's adaptation of the Hideo Yamamoto multi-volume manga -- don't all crime comics and manga owe a vast debt to Gould's Tracy? To my mind, gems like Snatch are truer to the Gould Dick Tracy than any of the official film versions, from the serials to the Warren Beatty extravaganza, and Ichi follows suit.

    The rogue's gallery in Ichi -- including Kakihara's completely loopy moll Karen (Alien Sun) and luckless, ex-cop bodyguard Kaneko (Sabu) -- is an awesome one, and the plethora and intensity of the nihilistic mayhem is so suffocating that one either succumbs or flinches, indulges or flees. This, too, is true to Gould's seminal comic strip, which was the most brutal comic strip ever syndicated -- as is the pitch-black humor that sharpens rather than leavens the violence in Miike's opus.

    This is all executed with incredible precision and skill; the film is beautifully made, edited and shot. It's as genuinely cinematic a manga or comic adaptation as any comics-film ever made, and it wears its manga wellspring on its sleeve. True to manga iconography, the hero Ichi boasts unnatural strength and is costumed (dressed head-to-toe in a padded black outfit, with a yield-sign colored 'I' on his back like a superhero's insignia). But he's also an almost Lenny-like idiot, controlled by the low-rent Mabuse-like Jijii. Traumatized by a bullies as a child and by a gang-rape he witnessed (or was he? did he?), Ichi is hardly hero material. He is pursued by the monstrous Kakihara, a terrific screen psycho who fuses the extremes of Chester Gould and Clive Barker's imaginative antagonists with a sometimes astonishing wedding of cool and intensity.

    Typical of its genres (yakuza/crime films and torture films), the violence against women is extreme and truly horrific; that said, misanthropy, not misogyny, informs every aspect of the film, and the men suffer as badly as the female characters (but ouch, that nipple-slicing sequence hurts!). This is undefensible stuff for most audiences, and there's no apology extended or expected; you either go with Ichi, or you can't.

    Miike doesn't coyly mislead an unprepared audience into this milieu: the film's opening titles emerge from a screen-filling lake of semen. Ichi the Killer lets you know from the beginning that all bets are off -- though I hasten to emphasize Miike's usual razored wit and humor are in full play, too (again, as evidenced by that opening title; you won't see any Hollywood remake of this film, and if you do, it won't have it's titles sliding into view from a puddle of jizz). Early on, Kakihara repents for his transgressions against his gang by cutting off the tip of his own tongue -- only to have his mobile phone ring, and he struggles to answer. In his first strange, pathetic 'action' sequence, Ichi wields a From Russian With Love-like razored boot with which he bisects a pimp in half. Like Dr. Phibes sipping wine through his neck (and Robert Fuest's delicious The Abominable Dr. Phibes), Kakihara savors his cigarette and exhales smoke through the gashes in his face. This is deliberately outrageous, funny stuff, and Ichi the Killer is utterly disorienting for its rapid-fire juxtaposition of comedy and horror, so stylish and surreal and equally willing to baffle and derail -- Miike challenges the viewer throughout, this isn't a simplistic or titillating thrill-ride.

    Though a case has been made (restated on the same DVD extra I appear in) that Ichi precipitated the current vein of torture-horror flicks -- a genre Lance Weiler dubbed "confined horror" (in conversation last fall) and my son Dan dismisses as "strap 'em to the chair movies" -- it's important to note this unpalatable subgenre has a venerable history back to the beginning of cinema.

    Docking from this conversation agonizing emotional torment showcases -- Lon Chaney humiliation epics like Laugh, Clown, Laugh, F.W. Murnau's classic The Last Laugh and G.W. Pabst's sound era classic The Blue Angel and all that followed, from glossy soap operas to Ingmar Bergman internalized agony fests -- and focusing only on physical torture epics, there's plenty of grist for the meat mill before Ichi and the current Saw and Hostel bloodbaths. Anyone thinking this stuff is a fresh eruption of cinematic perversion is wearing blinders; it's the latest permutation of something with a proven commercial track record.

    I've got a vhs clip in my collection from a hand-colored Italian short film from the very early 1900s which reserves its use of hand-colored frames for the moment when an Inquisition torture victim is spun on a wheel he is bound to -- and a rack of spikes is rolled into contact with his body, suddenly splashing the frames with a shuddery, unstable red. This shocking bit of onscreen gore wasn't a first -- that, arguably, belongs to the one-two punch of Edison's earliest films: the onscreen faked beheading climax to Edison's 1895 The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the all-too-real 1903 Electrocuting an Elephant (both archived on Kino/MoMA's essential Edison: The Invention of the Movies 4-disc DVD set, 2005).

    Torture movies were mainstream studio offerings in the silent era and early sound era -- usually the Christian spectacle put it front and center, as in Giuseppe de Liguoro's L'Inferno (Dante's Inferno, 1911, out on domestic DVD from www.snappermusic.com), Benjamin Christenson's delirious Haxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages, 1922, available from Criterion and highly recommended), and Cecil B. DeMille's shameless Biblical epics (see Sign of the Cross, if you dare). Medieval-set and French Revolution films reveled in torture; note that Kakihara's ear-to-ear gash-grin is lifted verbatim from the venerable Victor Hugo novel The Man Who Laughs, which Paul Leni adapted quite handsomely to film in 1927 (recommended, and out on DVD from Kino). Torture of a hapless, frail blonde young woman in a remote outpost in Africa was the be-all & end-all of the original silent Lon Chaney classic West of Zanzibar (1926) and its even more upsetting sound remake Kongo (1930, with Walter Huston in the Chaney role; the twist, natch, was that Chaney/Huston was tormenting a woman who he believed to be his rival's daughter, only to find out it was -- his own!). The Boris Karloff Mask of Fu Manchu was a wall-to-wall torture epic, compliments of Sax Rohmer's pulp villain embodying the most extreme of 'Yellow Peril' xenophobic dread. These weren't fringe deviant exploitation films, mind you -- these were all MGM films!

    This admittedly sick stuff escalated into the grueling torture sequences of many WW2 films, American studio fare and European films, which morphed into the increasingly grueling Cold War tortures central to Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly and the brainwashing horrors of forgotten films like the Ronald Reagan star vehicle Prisoner of War (1954, MGM) -- which I caught on late-night TV as a pre-teen -- and popular boxoffice hits like The Manchurian Candidate (1963). Prisoner of War was, in its time, a borderline-horror nightmare, in which Reagan played a Korean War intelligence agent who willingly submits to POW status, enduring sadistic Russian-supervised North Korean torture (to expose such practices); it was harrowing stuff when I caught it quite by accident on TV in the mid-60s, the low-budget documentary-like depiction of Reagan's torture lending the film unexpected potency. I later read that Reagan blamed '50s liberals for the film's boxoffice failure, but it may have just been too nasty for its day -- not to mention it was, despite its MGM production status, a low-budget offering flying below popular radar, lacking the Mickey Spillane novel's pre-sell of Kiss Me Deadly and best-seller source, wicked wit and keen intelligence of the similar Manchurian Candidate. WW2 torture came to the fore, too, with Hammer Films's notorious (and lucrative) The Camp on Blood Island; Hammer also elevated torture-to-substance via period shockers like The Stranglers of Bombay and 'Yellow Peril' potboilers like The Terror of the Tongs. These were artifacts of Britain's lingering Colonial era fears, the latter memorable for the scene in which faux-oriental villain Christopher Lee memorably asked the film's nominal hero if he'd "ever had your bones scraped"? Brrrrr! Like the North Korean brainwash torments, these were all derivative of the inventive tortures of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu, embodying then-contemporary colonial/imperialist/capitalist xenophobia as explicitly as Eli Roth's Hostel does today's distinctive xenophobia ("oh, watch out for those Eastern Europeans! The world hates us soooo much they'll pay dearly to let anyone who wants to torture Americans!").

    The modern horror film was founded in torture, most aggressively manifest in the onscreen ordeals central to the geriatric hothouse agonies of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Lady in a Cage. The most archetypal incarnation of horror/torture films were bookended by the almost unknown (in its time) James Landis gem The Sadist (1963) and the breakthrough international success of Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel's classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Between those two cinematic blood brothers lay the then-incredibly-explicit Medieval witch-torching horrors of the unexpected boxoffice hits, Michael Reeves' The Witchfinder General/The Conqueror Worm (1968), Ken Russell's still-censored The Devils (1971) and brutal imitations like Michael Armstrong's Mark of the Devil (1972), which scored big in US theaters thanks to its shameless "The First Film Rated 'V' for Violence!" and vomit-bag ballyhoo. As I've written here before, the current boom in theatrical torture horrors is definitely tied to the current Bush Administration torture policies, just as the brainwash-torture-horrors of Prisoner of War and The Manchurian Candidate reflected post-Korean War Cold War realities and the witchfinder horror films and gore-westerns (The Wild Bunch, Soldier Blue, Ulzana's Raid, etc.) and more brutal biker films emerged from -- and expressed -- the agonies and extremes of the Vietnam War.

    No, torture movies are a venerable genre, in and of themselves, if one recognizes the signposts and landmarks -- and in Japan, torture has been more explicitly central to certain genres, including yakuza films, since the '50s and '60s than it was in American films until the 1990s. I still vividly recall a color still from an unnamed 1960s yakuza film that was printed in the special Life magazine issue on "The Movies," showing a bound character about to suffer the heat of a blue-flamed blow torch. These sequences were usually cut from the few Japanese non-sf films to play stateside, but once the video black market of the '80s permitted some access to these films, it was obvious that Japanese cinema reveled in the most extreme forms of mayhem imaginable, and had since the '60s. By the time the notorious Guinea Pig films surfaced, it was possible to trace their roots in the porn 'pink film' genre which congealed in the early '60s, revolving exclusively around misogynist fantasies of kidnapping, rape and torture, and going much further than, say, similarly-themed Western novels/films like The Collector even hinted possible. Though we now have classic like Yasuzo Masumura's Blind Beast available on DVD stateside (see Fantoma's DVD), the black-and-white cheapjack pink films that led to Blind Beast and its ilk are still relatively unknown in the US, and the crude Guinea Pig direct-to-video shockers remain the most renowned culmination of this curious sex-and-torture genre.

    Ichi was here: Ichi the Killer

    That said, the Western success of Miike's work -- which, according to some Asian film scholars, is contrary to Miike's relatively low stature in his home country -- cannot be underestimated, and the role Audition and Ichi played in that lionizing is undeniable. That Ichi undoubtably fueled the current domestic horror/torture subgenre is undeniably true: in fact, the new Tokyo Shock edition boasts "a featurette with horror film director Eli Roth! The director of Cabin Fever, Hostel and Hostel 2," promoted on the packaging with a 'toe-tag' type sticker graphic. There, it's official. But it's also important to note how Ichi distills its horrific essence from a conflation of the distinctive Japanese pink, yakuza and torture films of the '60s to present, and its homoerotic emotional core owes a debt as well to John Woo's A Better Tomorrow films and The Killer (themselves derivative in that aspect of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone's westerns, Melville's French crime films, etc.)

    It was the zealous excess of Miike's fusion of graphic atrocities, black comedy and over-the-top homoerotic yakuza sturm und drang that galvanized those with strong enough stomachs to savor the ride. From the time it first surfaced on various international festival and DVD markets, Ichi was legend, and the buzz was such that fans of the most extreme world horror films were eagerly seeking out any means to screen Ichi ASAP. I missed it's theatrical showing at the 2003 FantAsia Fest in Montreal, but no matter; I first saw it via the uncut 2-disc Worldwide Cinema import in 2003. From the beginning, it was tough to track down a complete version: UK's Premier Asia release was truncated by heavy cuts imposed by the BBFC, and the Hong Kong Category III DVD release was shorn of over 10 minutes! I bided my time and waited for the real McCoy, which Worldwide delivered. Tokyo Shock's release is indeed complete and uncut, and now the definitive US release to see or buy.

    Miike's maniacal masterpiece delivered -- and still delivers -- in spades; that's a calling card and a warning to the squeamish, mind you. Tokyo Shock's new edition -- 2 discs, over two hours of mostly-new bonus features -- is an ideal definitive edition for those of you who know the film, and the perfect one-shot edition to buy if you're new to Miike and Ichi. Just be careful -- well, you get the idea.

    This is potent, potentially toxic stuff, approach with caution! I'm proud to be part of this new edition, and a big thank you to Carl Morano for inviting me aboard for the interview, and to Carl and to John Carchietta of Fever Dreams LLC for sending me my comp copy this week. Nice to treated so kindly!

  • (BTW, here's the Fever Dreams LLC site, with its initial three titles in place and more to follow; take a look.)

  • Special note: Tokyo Shock's "Collector's Blood Bag" edition is a hoot, but I recommend (a) careful extraction of the two discs from the special dual-pocketed faux blood bag (no cutting required; the sleeve openings are on the right side of the 'bag' DVD packaging), and (b) storage thereafter of the discs in separate sleeves or a case for easy access once you've coaxed the discs free of the plastic blood bag.

    It's a slow, calculated removal procedure, as the tough plastic of the bag clings to the discs (without harming them, if you're careful), and the sleeve opening just barely permits the discs to be removed -- it's a tight squeeze!

    Once I had mine out, I wasn't going to chance either damaging the discs with further blood bag antics, or accidentally splitting the seam of the blood bag ("Warning: Do not drink liquid. Liquid will stain clothing. Liquid is non-toxic..." etc.).
    This is nonetheless a great package. The 'blood bag' packaging gimmick shows the usual Media Blaster flare for showmanship, which is a precious commodity in this William Castle-less era, and it's utterly appropriate to Ichi as a film.

    Kudos to Carl, John, Media Blasters and Tokyo Shock!

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