Versus and Ichi the Killer challenge the concept of righteous motivation, offering protagonists so morally ambiguous that it's difficult to distinguish who is 'good' and who is 'evil'.
VersusDirector: Ryuhei Kitamura
Cast: Tak Sakaguchi, Hideo Sakaki, Chieko Misaka, Kenji Matsuda
MPAA rating: Not Rated
Studio: Omega Micott
First date: 2001
US DVD Release Date: 2003-06-02
ICHI THE KILLER
Director: Takeshi Miike
Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Shinya Tsukamoto, Alien Sun, Nao Omori
(Omega Project/Omega Micott, 2001) Rated: Not Rated
DVD release date: 2 June 2003
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A Moral Issue
In the United States, cinematic violence has long been the subject of debates among politicians, psychologists, academics, and filmmakers. The most common defense of such violence is premised on narrative motivation: the movie hero is forced to use violence to defend himself, protect his culture, or wreak just vengeance against a malevolent adversary. Violence is fine, as long as there is a clear moral justification.
No such justification structures two recent Japanese films: Ryuhei Kitamura's Versus and Takeshi Miike's Ichi the Killer challenge the very concept of righteous motivation, offering protagonists so morally ambiguous that it's difficult to distinguish who is "good" and who is "evil."
In Versus, inmate number KSC2-303 (Tak Sakaguchi) has escaped from a maximum security prison. While we do not see how he frees himself, we know it was a brutal escape, as he is still handcuffed to the mutilated hand of one of his guards. On the run, KSC2-303 and another prisoner arrive at the bizarre "Forest of Resurrection," or, number 444 of the 666 doors to hell. Here they wait for the mysterious man (Hideo Sakaki) who engineered their breakout, only to be met by a group of thugs with a girl hostage (Chieko Misaka) in tow.
The inevitable fight results in the death of the other prisoner and one thug, both coming back immediately as zombies. KSC2-303 and the girl escape into the forest, which has been used as a shallow graveyard by the local mafia, the bodies now all returned as zombies. Versus' mise-en-scène and plot are inspired by any number of films, including The Matrix, Dawn of the Dead, Hard Boiled, and Highlander. However, Versus is different from most American films in that it never grants its characters clear moral standing, emphasized by the fact that none even has a name.
As the mysterious man wishes to open the gates of hell, he is plainly "evil," killing, dismembering, and even cannibalizing members of his own gang. KSC2-303 is not so different. When the mysterious man calls him "a serious criminal who committed disturbing crimes," it's not hard to believe, as KSC2-303 never appears as a victim, only a victimizer. He uses the girl for his own ends, never hesitating to slap her when she interrupts him.
Gory as Versus is, Ichi the Killer is even more disturbing in its explicit representation of sexual aggression and sadomasochism. In the first five minutes, the viewer is assaulted with gruesome images of rape, battery, evisceration, and drug use, followed quickly by scenes of extreme bondage, torture, self-mutilation, castration, and child abuse.
Based on a popular manga comic book, Ichi the Killer follows the exploits of the fearsome and self-mutilating Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano), a Yakuza who hunts those responsible for his boss' disappearance. Besides their professional relationship, Kakihara and his boss also enjoyed a sadomasochistic bond. While one never sees both of them together, Kakihara confesses to a girl (Alien Sun) of the strong union they had. This happens while Kakihara is chained to a wall and she is whipping him. After what would seem to be a serious beating, a bored and disappointed Kakihara declares that his boss is the only person who has been able to make him feel pain.
Misled by Jijii,(Shinya Tsukamoto) as to who has kidnapped his boss, Kakihara kidnaps the wrong don and sadistically tortures him with a combination of hooks, calamari, and hot oil. As a result, Kakihara and his gang are banned from the Yakuza. Eventually, he finds Ichi (Nao Omori), the person behind his boss's disappearance. Ichi is a seriously disturbed and infantile man who has been hypnotized by Jijii. Under some sort of trance, Ichi believes that the members of the mafia are the kids who bullied him as a teen. Wearing a bodysuit with a superhero's insignia and carrying a razor on his boot, Ichi tears his enemies to pieces.
While Ichi is obviously a victim, he hardly embodies nobility or moral virtue. He frequently cries and throws tantrums, and masturbates while watching a man brutalizing a woman. Ichi saves the woman and executes the man, but only because he expects to exert the same type of physical domination over her. When she rejects him, Ichi viciously kills her.
A similar situation involves Kakihara. Even though one could potentially sympathize with his quest to find his beloved boss, Kakihara is more vicious and sadistic than Ichi. One only has to look at his pleasure in torturing the don. As well, Kakihara's bizarre appearance implies his savagery and primitivism (see my article on "primitive" representations during the war in Iraq, http://www.popmatters.com/features/030328-iraq-lanzagorta.shtml).
For all their gruesomeness, Ichi the Killer and Versus never attempt to provide a moral justification for their violent content. Instead, the viewer is immersed in a lawless world, where institutions of authority are decadent and dangerous. The only cops in Ichi are corrupt; in Versus, they're ineffectual, and the guard whose hand is amputated murders a bystander to steal his car and continue their futile chase of KSC2-303. In the relationship of criminal to law, these films seem to suggest that morality is an inherently vague concept, which can only be used to judge how certain actions compare to an "official" morality. This may be the way these films excuse their violent content, by making explicit how a man's ethics are only as good as the values imposed by his culture.
Moral ambivalence does not make the violence in Ichi the Killer and Versus less complex, or validate their gruesomeness. On the contrary, these films seem to completely deconstruct our definition of heroes. Here, heroes are merely the ones who dress cool, wear leather clothes or some other fetishistic garment, and are able to inflict severe pain on their enemies. Then again, cool-looking aggression, not "morality," appears the most cherished and consumable cultural "value" today.