Reviews

Versus (2000)

Marco Lanzagorta

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'.


Versus

Director: 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

by Marco Lanzagorta
:. e-mail this article
:. print this article
:. comment on this article

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.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Television

'Everything's Gonna Be Okay' Is  Better Than Okay

The first season of Freeform's Everything's Gonna Be Okay is a funny, big-hearted love letter to family.

Music

Jordan Rakei Breathes New Life Into Soul Music

Jordan Rakei is a restless artistic spirit who brings R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and pop craft into his sumptuous, warm music. Rakei discusses his latest album and new music he's working on that will sound completely different from everything he's done so far.

Reviews

Country Music's John Anderson Counts the 'Years'

John Anderson, who continues to possess one of country music's all-time great voices, contemplates life, love, mortality, and resilience on Years.

Music

Rory Block's 'Prove It on Me' Pays Tribute to Women's Blues

The songs on Rory Block's Prove It on Me express the strength of female artists despite their circumstances as second class citizens in both the musical world and larger American society.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 3, Echo & the Bunnymen to Lizzy Mercier Descloux

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part three with Echo & the Bunnymen, Cabaret Voltaire, Pere Ubu and more.

Books

Wendy Carlos: Musical Pioneer, Reluctant Icon

Amanda Sewell's vastly informative new biography on musical trailblazer Wendy Carlos is both reverent and honest.

Music

British Folk Duo Orpine Share Blissful New Song "Two Rivers" (premiere)

Orpine's "Two Rivers" is a gently undulating, understated folk song that provides a welcome reminder of the enduring majesty of nature.

Music

Blesson Roy Gets "In Tune With the Moon" (premiere)

Terry Borden was a member of slowcore pioneers Idaho and a member of Pete Yorn's band. Now he readies the debut of Blesson Roy and shares "In Tune With the Moon".

Books

In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.

Music

Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.

Film

Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.

Music

Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.

Music

Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.

Music

'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.

Music

Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.

Television

From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.

Music

Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.

Music

Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".

Games

On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.