There are no heroes in this story. The protagonist is a sadistic killer and the antagonists are Yakuza. Every character in between is different shades of black and yet, there is something so very human about the plot of Ichi The Killer. Villains unlike their armor sheathed opposites have a way of connecting with humanity’s basest faults. There is a kind of cathartic bond between their villainous actions and our deepest desires. A relationship forged between how we would like to act and how society has trained us to behave.
In Ichi The Killer Hideo Yamamoto is not interested in following the rules. He wants to reach out and pull the readers into his darkness. Some feelings can only be relayed through a shared experience, and what better way to share Japan’s brutal criminal underground than to place us in the shoes of a man who is hunting it. Every swipe of Ichi’s blade is a chance for Yamamoto to take our hand and put it on the hilt. Every gore splattered room, an opportunity to disgust us with our own satisfaction. Mangaka Masterwork has always been about honoring stories with true narrative power; authors whose world’s transport and whose characters connect. Ichi The Killer not only sweeps the audience away it drags them neck deep into its violence.
Ichi The killer is the story of a severely troubled killer named Ichi. He is a sadist who suffers from the traumas of a broken and bullied childhood. His experience has shattered him in ways the audience isn’t meant to fully understand and his skills are from the stories introduction, taken advantage of. The narrative starts with Ichi screaming and crying as he kills. Unknown to him his target is a Yakuza leader name Anjou. The man giving him his missions, Jii-san, has taken advantage of Ichi’s mental state and convinced him that the people he is killing are bad people. People who want to bully him. Anjou’s death sets in motion a series of irreversible events. The Yakuza don’t take kindly to their master’s disappearance and what follows is a bloodbath. Violence, and its cyclical nature are a running theme in the story. One death leads into another that leads into another.
This vortex is not meant to disgust so much as hypnotize the reader. Ichi, while not exactly sympathetic, is identifiable. He is purposefully established as a weak minded and easily manipulated character. Everyone at some point in his or her life has been bullied or taken advantage of. Ichi is meant to be a conduit for those feelings, a channel that serves to bring the story’s unending violence into focus. Yamamoto does not want us to only feel uncomfortable with Ichi’s killing, he wants us to recognize how uncomfortable we should be with the violence we see everyday. The Yakuza are not some intangible entity; they are a readily accepted piece of Japanese culture. Whether it is a fear for one’s life or a conditioned acceptance, ignoring gang violence has become a societal norm. By casting a villain such as Ichi as his lead Yamamoto is on a quest to question these everyday norms. To put the reader in a position where they must ask themselves whether or not they are comfortable with their own silent admission.
To that end his art does most of the talking. I know that I have warned my readers before about a manga’s content. Well I have to double down on that warning today. Ichi The Killer stands tall amongst the worst things I have every read or experienced. To put it lightly, it is Manga’s version of Cormac Mccarthy’s The Blood Meridian. The violence you will see is only elevated by its context. Torture is commonplace and is often either preceded by or accompanying either drugs or sexual gratification. This manga is not only inappropriate for children is it something even adults should carefully consider before reading. Yamamoto is a man on a mission and that quest involves presenting the reader with situations that are as uncomfortable as they are revolting. Viewer Discretion Advised.
Ichi’s weapon of choice is a pair of shoes with heavy steel blades attached to the heel. Due to years of heavy bullying he became an expert at martial arts. He fights by kicking at the enemy and slicing them apart with each swipe. This method of fighting is meant to mimic a super power. I mean he was bullied so he trained himself and now he has an ability that is as strange as it is powerful. Yamamoto sets the character up as the story’s Superman.
In one scene in particular he takes on a room full of yakuza. These men are the very definition of evil. The story had previously depicted them raping and beating multiple women, torturing a slew of men to death, and straight up murdering for sport. By the time Ichi arrives with his cold metal heels the reader wants them to die. When Ichi unloads the action is heavily shaded and stylized. Hundreds of movement lines allow for a tangible speed and power. Each kick is like a bag of cement whose weight is only heightened by high speed blood spatter. As Ichi ruthlessly kills these monsters he dismembers them kick by kick. On guy takes a heel horizontally to his forehead. The art slows down as his face is literally flayed from his body and violently slapped onto the ceiling from the force of the kick. This scene is beautifully constructed. As it unfolds it uses the reader’s initial excitement as a fuel source for extreme guilt and embarrassment. As the fight escalates each brutal second is worse than the last. as the last body falls all that is left is death and self loathing. Vigilante justice turned into a psychopath’s wet dream. And the reader is forced to face that fact that no one, not even evil men are suppose to be killed with delight. A message Yamamoto drives home as at the end of the page Ichi turns and masterbates on his victims fresh corpse.
Ichi The Killer’s art is a direct manifestation of its theme. By overloading the reader with gore and sex and drugs Yamamoto is trying to call attention to our own complacency and acceptance. At some point in the manga we identify with every character. We hate how evil everyone is and Ichi starts out as an outlet for our desire for vigilante justice. Except Yamamoto goes to great lengths in characterizing Ichi’s sadism. He is not the hero. There are no heros. And by the end of the manga we are disgusted with not only the material but ourselves.
One of the most terrifying aspects of the manga is the fact that the more troubling parts of its plot are inspired by reality. The Yakuza are not some fairy tale construction they are a real and troubling part of the Japanese condition. Their power is such that it affects politics and business on a national scale and yet there is very little public outcry or opposition. While this specific example is anecdotal I have talked to several Japanese exchange students about the role Yakuza play in everyday life. From tattoos to political parties they have admitted to Yakuza having a weighty effect on several everyday issues. Ichi The Killer is constructed in such a way as to question that.
As the narrative unfolds Ichi gets further and further embroiled in a wide scale gang war. Jii-san has used Ichi’s enigmatic nature to fuel hatred between competing factions and what is left by the end of the series is all out chaos. Ichi The Killer never stops escalating. The events in the story unfold at an ever-increasing speed, which only serves to fuel the reader’s investment. I won’t lie. As the action picked up and Ichi was slicing and dicing his way to a orgasm I was invested. I was completely caught in the trap Yamamoto had laid out from the beginning.
By the end of the manga I was as horrified with myself as with the series I had read. Yamamoto held nothing back and instead of resisting it, I ate everything up. Ichi The Killer is not about Ichi or the Yakuza. It is about how violence spreads and normalizes itself. The entire series is one hatful scene piled on the back of another. There is so much of it and it is so extreme that by the end you’ve grown acclimated to it. It doesn’t matter if what Ichi is doing is right or if the people the Yakuza kill are other Yakuza. What matters is that we begin to not care about the loss of life or cruelty. By casting a villain as the protagonist Yamamoto wants to take his audience to that breaking point; where the norms of regular society flex and break. Ichi the killer is more than just a thriller it is a deep meditation on how violence spreads and a warning to all those of have grown to used to it.