There are movies that benefit from 4K restorations, movies that demand 4K restorations, and movies that should never be given 4K restorations because even a single K would be one K too many. Case in point, Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer, a grimy movie about grimy things once available in strictly grimy presentations, now gussied up by Well Go USA in a 4K remaster: They get an “A” for effort, but an ASCII shrug for intent. Ichi the Killer isn’t for the faint of heart, epileptics, priests, expectant mothers, or really anybody with even a very mild aversion to apathetically graphic depictions of violence and torture. Murky cuts of the film are the most palatable. Higgledy piggledy piles of human organs should never be seen with this much clarity.
All the same, Ichi the Killer’s restoration throws Miike’s career trajectory into sharp relief, especially as his new film, Blade of the Immortal, arrives in theaters and on VOD for consumption by a niche moviegoing audience whose memories of Miike’s shock cinema roots have softened as his choices in late-stage projects have become more refined (or, if nothing else, less unabashedly deranged). Not that Miike will ever be thought of as a sophisticated filmmaker, even if his filmmaking is itself sophisticated: He’s too self-possessed, too much an inveterate transgressive artist for high-minded honorifics and accolades. He makes one kind of film—Miike films—and the world is richer for that no matter how nauseating and outright strange those films so often happen to be.
With Well Go’s treatment on Ichi the Killer running at New York City’s Metrograph at the same time that Blade of the Immortal premieres in theaters, that Miike dichotomy is made newly visible. Both films are about revenge. Both films hinge on scenes of carnage and blood-splattered action. Both of them prominently feature characters with visible scars, worn like fashion statements more so than past wounds. But restoring Ichi the Killer makes as much sense as dressing up Leatherface in a Brioni one-button tuxedo: It looks fabulous, but gruesome exploitation that looks fabulous is still gruesome exploitation. By contrast, Blade of the Immortal looks fabulous right out the gate. There’s no dressing up needed. The film is a natural stunner.
One may cynically call Blade of the Immortal a glossy, commercial version of a Miike film, and they’d be half wrong. It’s impeccably made, but hardly qualifies as commercial. Miike sacrifices little of his personality in adapting Hiroaki Samura’s manga series for the big screen, coupling its various eccentricities with his own directorial flourishes: Unsurprisingly there’s gore aplenty, and the cast of characters includes a samurai with severed heads mounted on his armor, a beautiful courtesan-cum-assassin with a conscience, an unkillable swordsmen, and a nun who apparently wanders the countryside searching for skilled, damned warriors to serve as hosts for parasites that give their hosts immortality. (It’s a more complicated than that, but not by much.) The hero has a literal armory hidden up his sleeves. One shake of his arms and piles of weapons tumble right out. It’s Looney Tunes-level stuff in a genre that’s anything but cartoonish.
Begrudging Miike for making movies with higher production values today than the movies he made his name making back in the 1990s and early to mid 2000s would be selfish, but there’s a certain undeniable something his work has lost after almost three decades of cranking out films his way, and only his way. Ichi the Killer’s revival is perhaps the best reminder that Miike is still Miike today, but a more comparatively mature Miike. He’ll make a movie about an all-out war between wacky gangsters and vampires (2015’s Yakuza Apocalypse), but even that movie comparatively lacks Ichi the Killer’s enthusiasm. Miike inflicted the film upon us sixteen years ago at the tender age of 41. At 57, he’s just as happy to include assortments of wonders and oddities in his frames, but his penchant for anarchic and heretofore unimagined displays of splattered human viscera has cooled.
Ichi the Killer is a time capsule for Miike. It’s the kind of film that dares the offended to voice their objections, a movie so unapologetic for the cruelty it visits on its characters that drawing up a solid rebuke of those cruelties feels like a fool’s errand. “Yeah, we just showed you a woman getting her nipples sliced off,” the film taunts us. “What do you have to say about that?” The best response is something in the register of “ew,” but we lack proper language for expanding on our disgust. If you are not outraged by Ichi the Killer, you should partake in some self-examination. But Miike’s outre orchestrations of the barbaric physical punishments devised by his screenwriter, Sakichi Sat?, and Hideo Yamamoto, the author of the seinen manga series the film is based on, belies his inclination toward allegory and the surprising sorrow he feels for his characters. How does one criticize that?
It’s true that we probably weren’t meant to see the torrents of blood, the mountains of mangled corpses, the heaps of detached limbs, or the jumbled masses of spilled intestinal tracts littering Ichi the Killer’s cinematic space as clearly as in its 4K resto. The upside, though, is that we also get to see the film’s characters and their various neuroses with greater transparency, too: It’s a film about pushing the viewer’s taste limits, but it’s also about what lengths people will go to and the measures they will take to rid themselves of their suffering and muffle their personal trauma. In 2017 that practically sounds like a cliché. Maybe it was a cliché in 2001, too, or a way of shrugging off controversy, but the cliché nevertheless holds true.
Gang member Suzuki wants revenge on rival gang member Kakihara for torturing him after being fed false leads regarding Suzuki’s complicity in the disappearance of Kakihara’s boss, Anjo. Kakihara wants revenge on whoever stole Anjo away from him. Jiji wants revenge on Kakihara for being excommunicated from Anjo’s gang. Kaneko wants to be a good father to his son, Takeshi, and a good person in general, protecting Ichi from a beating in a back alley. Ichi wants revenge on bullies as an abstract concept for abuse he suffered in high school. The film is an ecosystem made up of cycles of vengeance. (Even Kaneko’s arc eventually bleeds into those cycles, and he’s arguably the most decent person in the entire narrative.) Revisiting Ichi the Killer years later, we see its most upsetting elements in crisp detail, which inevitably means our upset gets triggered all over again. But we also see afresh the substantive underpinnings that lend the film ballast.
And this gives us an opportunity to look at Miike in new light, too. He hasn’t changed. He’s just grown up, at least as much as an artist like Miike can grow up. Blade of the Immortal presents his particularities as a filmmaker in an approachable package. The jidaigeki movie is familiar ground for even the average moviegoer, though Miike’s take on the jidaigeki certainly differs from the norm, much as his other jidaigeki films, like 13 Assassins and especially Izo, defy those norms. (Izo feels like a cousin to Ichi the Killer more so than Blade of the Immortal, in fact.) Seeing Ichi dice up yakuza, and seeing Kakihara pour tempura oil on their naked backs as they hang suspended from the ceiling by meathooks, via Well Go’s sterling touch-up work, lets us appreciate Miike’s evolution as an auteur—as long as you remember to bring a backup sick bag.
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.