As the prequel to one of the most notoriously bloody of all live-action Japanese action movies (one of its tag lines proclaims it to be “the Citizen Kane
of arterial blood spray movies”), I was expecting lots of blood and gore but not much else out of the animated version of Ichi the Killer. Surprisingly, it also offers an interesting (if rather sick) character study about how a man can get so twisted by his delusions and childhood experiences that he becomes a sadist in the truest sense of the word. Many of the common elements you hear about in the backgrounds of true killers are here: the bullying, the cruelty to animals, not getting along with parents, getting aroused by inflicting pain. Add in the attention of a severely masochistic (again, in the truest sense of the word) young woman and you have all the components needed to shape a talented, extremely violent and explosively powerful monster. What makes this story work, where others of its type might fail, is that it feels perfectly believable. A definite logical progression exists in Ichi's actions and delusions which can convince the viewer that Ichi's lethal tendencies didn't come from nowhere.
As one might expect given the subject matter, Ichi the Killer is exceedingly graphic. It does pull its punches a little by only suggesting the most extreme scenes, and there are more graphic anime out there, but the brutality of the violence and the sexual elements involved give it an edge that many other OVAs of its ilk do not have. Nudity and strong sexual content also pop up from time to time. This one is definitely not for the prudish or the younger set, so make sure you're aware of what you're getting into before sitting down to watch it.
The character designs, though well-done, are not particularly appealing. Given the stylings of the show, though, this may be more by intent than because of artistic flaw. Backgrounds are well-done but not fancy. The animation itself is the weakest point about Ichi; it is very jerky in some places (even discounting the shaking perspective deliberately used at times to mimic Ichi's unease with the situation) and takes substantial short cuts in others. Weird backgrounds and visual effects are used to highlight and reflect Ichi's moods, an interesting but not novel trick. Fair warning: some of the visuals are disturbing, especially a scene involving animal mutilation.
As problematic as the animation is, the quality of the sound and soundtrack make up for it. The heavy, driving techno themes do a superb job of setting the edgy mood and tone for the series and heightening the intensity of the violent scenes. The closer is a fusion of hip-hop, metal, and techno infused with screams for an unsettling effect. Musical sections of the closer are mixed with untranslated (and unsubtitled) dialog bits which seem to concern the characters but since I'm not fluent in Japanese it's hard to tell. The original Japanese credits are displayed first, followed by the credits in English, which makes for an overly long closer, but watch for bonus scenes at the end.
The English dub does a good job of parroting the original Japanese vocals, especially in the title role. Whether this was a good move or not is debatable, since the performance of Ichi's voice actor comes off as shrill in both versions. The Japanese vocals for supporting character
Midori are softer and gentler than the English version, which is the only significant discrepancy in casting and performances. I didn't think the Japanese vocals served the character as well, but opinions may differ on this. The English script stays reasonably close to the Japanese original in most places, but there are a couple of key changes which do alter the meaning of what's being said. The most prominent one is a reference by Midori to going to a hotel with Ichi in the English dub, while she makes a point to distinguish it as a “love hotel” in the subtitles. “Love hotels” don't exist in the States (at least not in the sense that they do in Japan) and most adults in the States would understand exactly what's meant when a woman talks about retiring to a hotel with a man, so perhaps the English script writer thought the full reference would be confusing and unnecessary.
Extras on the DVD include company trailers, a trailer for Episode 0, and an art gallery which is mostly composed of still shots from the animation. The back of the cover art also provides a side-by-side breakdown of the English and Japanese VAs for each role, a nice touch that I wish was used more.
Ichi The Killer: Episode Zero is a violent, perverse, and disturbing look at the making of a potent killer. If you're the kind of person who would watch the live-action version, or you're into extremely graphic anime, then you will probably like this one. It is not otherwise recommended viewing.