Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer was a breakout success, not only in its native Japan but all around the world. Based on the original Manga by Hideo Yamamoto, it tells the story of a repressed, introverted young man named Satoishi who gains the name Ichi (Japanese for "one") for being untouchable when it comes to his martial arts skills. Miike’s film tossed you into the middle of the story, so there was a lot of background information left out. So it's not surprising that 1-Ichi was made, a prequel to Miike’s over-the-top action film that fills in some of the blanks for those that have never read the Manga.
Dai is unquestionably the leader of Chu-oh High School; he can’t be beaten in a fight, and his goal is to take out each of the top gangs in all of the neighboring schools to make Chu-oh the top. He has a little problem though: there’s a kid named Satoishi that seems to show up whenever Dai gets into a fight and watches from a distance. Dai believes the kid is laughing at him, and makes it his goal to have a showdown with him.
Once Dai confronts him, Satoishi cowers and refuses to fight back; he cries whenever he’s hit, and even the kids in his Karate class walk all over him. But he can’t shake wanting to be a spectator to violence. It ends up getting him into trouble with a gang from Takaba High School, who mercilessly pelt him with baseballs to teach him a lesson, ultimately breaking his nose. At the sight of his own blood, Satoishi snaps and single-handedly wipes out the gang in a violent fury.
The tables are turned on the usually voyeuristic Satoishi, as he’s observed during the melee by Onizame, a new student at Chu-oh High School who just happens to be walking by. Onizame also fancies himself an amazing fighter, and ends up overthrowing Dai as the toughest guy at the school. This doesn’t satisfy him however; he saw what Satoishi did to the gang from Takaba, and he wants to test his strength against him. Awakening the beast inside Satoishi though may not be the wisest of choices.
Before going into 1-Ichi, you should know one thing: it’s absolutely nothing like Ichi the Killer. The film is nowhere near as intricate as its successor, and is quite basic in a number of ways. For one, the story is very straight-forward. You won’t need any re-watches to pick out all of the nuances in the narrative. Basically, what you see is what you get. There were a handful of scenes that came off as bizarre with no explanation (I really have no idea what the purpose of the déjà-vu scene was), but overall the experience is very streamlined without many deep layers.
There aren’t a lot over-the-top elements to 1-Ichi when compared to Ichi the Killer; yes, Satoishi still gets excited and tends to “explode” when participating in or watching violent acts, but many of the more adventurous elements found in Miike’s film are absent here. The violence however is pretty graphic and comes off a lot more realistic than the cartoonish level of insanity in Ichi the Killer. The blood looks great, and the hits come off very brutal. This is elevated by the excellent crunching and twisting sound effects that accompany all of the action.
1-Ichi is director Masato Tanno’s first film (Tanno was Miike’s assistant director on a number of his projects, including Ichi the Killer), and as such, it looks very cheap. I suspect many that seek out the film will be immediately put off by the shot-on-video look, which his very reminiscent of Japanese TV dramas (otherwise known as Soap Operas in the US). For some reason though, I think it actually works with the intent of the film. It comes off very raw, as does the story itself. Also, it seems almost appropriate when taking into consideration this is an origin story and a prelude to the events of Ichi the Killer. Here, Satoishi isn’t yet himself; he hasn’t perfected his skills, isn’t willing to accept who he is, and is very rough around the edges. Just as Satoishi hasn't fully developed, 1-Ichi isn’t as refined as its big brother.
Of course, being a low-budget affair, 1-Ichi brings along some of the problems generally associated with them. While the pacing, acting, gore FX, and music are of a respectable caliber, some of the elements, such as camera techniques are sorely lacking. One scene, which has Satoishi attempting to flee from Onizame, has an awful filter laid over it which looks like something a high school kid would use in a short film; it’s downright ugly. There’s also some questionable use of CGI in a couple of scenes where Satoishi stands on a roof while birds fly over head and occasionally dive in on him. It looks terribly cheesy, and was just a bad choice to make when working on such a limited budget.
If you go into 1-Ichi knowing that it’s a completely different beast than Ichi the Killer, you may find some entertainment value within the film; those that are fans of the Manga certainly will, as it actually does a better job of capturing the spirit of it than Miike’s film did. With a bigger budget and more time, the film could have been a lot better, but as is it’s an entertaining and violent time-waster.
Unearthed Films presents 1-Ichi on DVD in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, but unfortunately it’s a letterboxed presentation, and is non-anamorphic. It looks just about as good as a film shot on video is going to, but don’t expect greatness. The Dolby Digital 2.0 sound is very nice, and the bass that hits on the punches and kicks is especially pleasing. I didn’t spot many errors when it came to the English subtitles.
The main extra on the disc is a one-on-one interview between director Masato Tanno and his mentor Takashi Miike. It runs just under 15 minutes, and they have fun speaking about the making of the film, how much of a contrast it is when compared to Ichi the Killer, and how it was working with the actors. A trailer for the film along with a handful for other Unearthed releases rounds out the disc.
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