Takashi Miike’s ICHI THE KILLER is often referred to as “the CITIZEN KANE of arterial blood spray movies.” And while that’s a fairly apt description, it’s also an unfortunate one in the sense that it merely reduces a film that offers a wonderfully complex and insightful look at BDSM to a category of film that includes the utterly reprehensible TOKYO GORE POLICE and MUTANT GIRLS SQUAD.
While ICHI THE KILLER is unmistakably a film that relishes in its opulence of ultraviolence, it also manages to transcend its exploitation roots by using the conventions of the yakuza and horror genres to comment on the role of the switch in BDSM.
Switches are the bisexuals of BDSM and, like bisexuals, they are often misunderstood, criticized and sometimes altogether maligned for the misguided perception of being unable to commit to one role or another. Ironically enough, for all its talk of being open and liberal, the BDSM community can actually be quite conservative when it comes to picking a side (Top or bottom) and sticking to it.
However, much like bisexuality, being a switch implies opening yourself up to new and exciting possibilities; sexual opportunities that are ultimately denied to those who restrict themselves to permanent roles of Dom or sub.
Furthermore, it is often through switching that one becomes a better Dom or sub since by experiencing both roles on a regular basis, one gains a better understanding and appreciation for the other role – a sense of empathy that despite what anyone will tell you, can never truly be gained by exclusively being a Top or bottom.
With this is mind, we can now explore why Takashi Miike’s ICHI THE KILLER is an absolutely brilliant film that serves as an ultraviolent metaphor for the role of the switch in BDSM and even goes one step further as to posit a theory as to why switches exist in the first place.
ICHI THE KILLER is based on the manga by Hideo Yamamoto and tells the story of Kakihara, a sadomasochistic yakuza enforcer who enjoys giving and receiving pain in equal measures. He works for a yakuza boss named Anjo, who one day disappears with 300 million yen. Kakihara and his henchmen tear the town apart looking for him.
Eventually, they get a tip from a mysterious man named Jijii that Anjo was abducted by a rival yakuza member named Suzuki. After capturing and torturing Suzuki looking for answers, they soon realize they have the wrong man and begin looking for Jijii, who tipped them off in the first place. Soon enough Kakihara and his men encounter Ichi, a psychotic, sexually repressed young man with amazing martial arts abilities and blades that come out of his shoes.
One by one Ichi takes out members of the yakuza and all the while Kakihara intensifies his pursuit of Ichi and Ichi’s controller Jijii, eventually confronting both men in a climactic rooftop battle.
ICHI THE KILLER is a fascinating character study about a sub in search of a Dom and how the failure and disappointment that comes with not finding someone who can truly dominate him causes him to become the very thing he’s searching for as a means of ultimately obtaining sexual gratification.
Kakihara is a masochist and desperately seeking a Dom who can fulfill his need for physical and psychological domination. Unfortunately, the sexual relationships we see Kakihara in throughout the film leave him feeling incredibly dissatisfied. When Kakihara learns about Ichi and his sadistic streak, he feels he may have finally found the Dom he’s been searching for.
When the two finally meet at the end of the film, Kakihara is practically salivating at the prospect of being beaten into submission. But like the others before him, Ichi inevitably disappoints Kakihara. However, this time, rather than leave the “relationship” in search of someone new, Kakihara adopts a “Dom” role and starts beating Ichi in such a manner as if to show him exactly what he wants Ichi to do to him. This seems to work because when the characters finally switch roles, Ichi delivers a blow to Kakihara, sending shivers of pleasure up and down his spine.
What Miike seems to be suggesting throughout the film – and in particular with this scene – is that a person becomes a switch out of frustration over finding a partner of an opposite role who can truly satisfy them. And so in an effort to obtain sexual gratification, a sub (using the example from the film) takes on the characteristics of a Dom almost as a way of “teaching” their partner what it is they want to experience sexually.
While this is initially done with the hope that if the Top feels what it’s like to be a bottom they will be better equipped to fulfill that person the next time around, sometimes by adopting the characteristics of a Dom, the sub will discover that they actually enjoy Topping. This self-discovery can lead to a tremendous change in the dynamic of the relationship to the point where the couple may now start switching roles when they play as they’re able to derive pleasure from both.
If you have the stomach for it, ICHI THE KILLER comes highly recommended. It’s Takashi Miike’s masterpiece and one of the most fascinating and insightful films about BDSM ever made.