When you ask people to list the best directors working today, you might see Christopher Nolan's name, or David Fincher's. Some of the more sentimental might choose Spielberg, or for those who like their cinema left of center, the Coen Brothers. You might hear old standbys like Scorsese or Malick, but I'm guessing you'll rarely hear the name Takashi Miike. If you ask me, however, Miike is close to if not the top director working today. First off, the man is a workhorse, making an average of six films a year. Woody Allen, at one film a year, is considered prolific. Granted, not every Miike film is stellar (or even good), but for someone who works almost non-stop, he has an exceptional hit to miss ratio. Secondly, his ability to meld style and content is virtually unmatched by anyone working today. Most directors cultivate a certain style. Miike changes styles at the drop of a hat, adapting to the needs of the story.
Take 'Ichi The Killer'. Based on Hideo Yamamoto's manga, 'Ichi The Killer' stars Nao Omori as the title character, a semi-simpleton who has been brainwashed by the mysterious Jijii ('Tetsuo: The Iron Man' director Shinya Tsukamoto). Jijii manipulates Ichi to kill a yakuza crime boss, Anjo. Anjo's sadomasochistic underling, Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano in a bravura performance), is certain that foul play was involved, and Jijii uses these suspicions to try and start a gang war. Of course, very little goes as planned, and the whole thing devolves into a chaotic, sexually charged bloodbath, with Kakihara on one end and Ichi on the other.
'Ichi The Killer' is difficult to summarize in a paragraph. It's a complex and often obtuse film. The plot is intricate and Miike doesn't take great pains to spell it out for you. However, most viewers won't even notice the plot the first time around, because the film is littered with some of the most graphic ultraviolence this side of 'A Clockwork Orange'. Note that I don't say gratuitous ultraviolence, as these sequences, including Kakihara slicing off the tip of his own tongue, a man ripping someone's arm off with his bare hands, a woman being brutally beaten and raped, and many others, are central to the film's theme of sadomasochism.
Kakihara, with trademark slits in his cheeks, is a sadomasochist, capable of doling out unbelievable pain to others, but unable to find someone to really hurt him to the depths that he desires. On more than one occasion characters note that the reason Kakihara cares so much about Anjo's disappearance was because Anjo was the only one who could hurt him to any satisfying degree. Kakihara's quest to find his former boss transforms as he sees the evidence of Ichi's brutal handiwork, and by the end Kakihara only wishes to face Ichi to experience the unparalleled pain that Ichi alone can provide.
Ichi is even more fascinating. A frustrated sadist, he normally appears meek and easily abashed. The film opens with him hiding on a balcony, spying on a pimp beating on one of his whores. Ichi masturbates into the bushes before being scared off (the film's title arises from his discarded spunk). Later, Ichi screws up the courage to confront the pimp and kills him, reassuring the prostitute that she doesn't have to worry, because now Ichi will be the one to beat her up. So while the ultraviolence is shocking, it's there to illustrate the themes.
It's also worth nothing that 'Ichi' is based on a manga, and is not grounded in a heavily realistic world. Characterizations and effects are meant to be exaggerated, as is the film's style. And oh, what style there is. Miike, the most anarchic filmmaker since Luis Bunuel, leaves no stylistic stone unturned. Take the opening, a frenetic montage of sped-up and slow motion shots, all set to the hypnotic score by Japan's greatest musical maniacs, The Boredoms. It sets the tone for the whole film, which utilizes all sorts of tricks, from fish-eye lens to switching stocks (and video), and much more besides.
It's not just that the style is cool unto itself, but Miike uses it to enhance the themes explored throughout the film. Sadomasochism is just one element. The film explores the line between truth and illusion, between what is perceived and what is real (and whether the difference matters), the role of violence and sex in modern Japanese society, and even more. The film is an onion whose layers can only be peeled back with repeated viewings. It's too dizzying and the rabbit hole goes too deep to take it all the first (or second, or even third) time through. It's a masterpiece of modern filmmaking that deserves far more than its reputation for being shocking.
I originally saw 'Ichi The Killer' on film at a festival screening. I promise you, it looked nothing like Tokyo Shock's 1.78:1 AVC transfer, which only achieves rates up to 15 Mbps, and sometimes as low as 11. You'll immediately notice the washed out colors and poor black levels that make the film look like it was all shot on video or the cheapest possible stock. I wouldn't blame you if you confused this for a DVD release, as the incessant noise (not film grain) and lack of detail would fool just about anyone.
The contrast doesn't fair any better, with elements getting lost in many of the darker scenes. This is a film that has many scenes at night and in poorly lit rooms or nightclubs, so this happens often. In some scenes, even the character's faces begin to blend in with the background. Despite these issues, color reproduction appeared correct (although the aforementioned problems with contrast and the overall washed out look diminish the vividness of the image), and I noticed no obvious macroblocking or posterization.
'Ichi The Killer' sports two Dolby TrueHD 5.1 tracks (the box incorrectly lists the 2.0 tracks as TrueHD, but those are in standard Dolby Digital), one in English and the other in the native Japanese. However, I would contend that there's nothing 5.1 about either track, as the rears are never used and the bass is practically non-existent. The only difference I could discern between the lossless and lossy tracks was some small amount of channel separation that gave the 5.1 slightly more depth.
All four tracks feature muffled dialogue and poor delineation of audio effects, and in a film like this, the audio effects are half the fun. While I didn't notice distortion, in terms of dynamic range there's nothing dynamic about this mix. The Boredoms' brilliant and gorgeous score doesn't get its due. Much like the image, which appears flat and uninspired, the audio does no justice to the great sound mix I heard when I saw the film in 35mm.
Tokyo Shock's release of 'Ichi The Killer' duplicates the supplements that have been found on previous DVD releases, but adds nothing new specifically for high def.
'Ichi The Killer' is a masterpiece of modern Japanese cinema, but this Blu-ray does it absolutely no favors. The washed out and noisy transfer is barely distinguishable from DVD, and to say the audio is in 5.1 is a joke. That being said, the film has to be seen to be believed, and the disc does have a set of informative extras, most especially the director's commentary and the almost hour-long on set documentary.
Rent it first, and then decide if you love the movie enough to make a purchase, as there doesn't seem to be a new edition on the horizon.