Director: Shinji Ishihira
Screenplay: Sakichi Sato
Based on the manga Ichi the Killer (1998-2001) by Hideo Yamamoto
Voice Cast: Chihiro Suzuki (as Ichi); Sayaka Ohara (as Midori); Shinpachi Tsuji (as Jijii); Takashi Miike (as Kakihara); Atsushi Imaruoka (as Nobuo); Daisuke Sakaguchi (as Hirose); Ema Kogure (as Jiro); Eri Saito (as Mother)
Synopsis: A prequel to the Ichi the Killer narrative, following the origins of the titular figure, a sadistic assassin who cries as he kills and yet paradoxically enjoys inflicting pain on others in an extreme fashion. This short animation shows both how as a high school student constant bullying and a series of events placed him in prison for murder, and how after he's released a mysterious benefactor turn him into the cry-baby sociopath of the Ichi the Killer story.
Ichi the Killer: Episode Zero is a fascinating extra for Takashi Miike's infamous 2001 adaptation of the Hideo Yamamoto manga. However the word "extra" is apt. It even feels at odds with the film its meant to be an addition of in spite of the presence of the same screenwriter Sakichi Sato between them. Miike's film is a much more complex, subversive creation, which shows horrifying and taboo material only to twist a knife into the viewer's stomach for viewing it. Episode Zero instead of this feels like one of the final throwbacks to the idea of anime, especially in the West in the nineties, being adult and transgressive. Violent and adult anime is still being made, but particularly with the straight-to-video market (OVA) there was a lot of this nasty (and sometimes utterly cheap) anime in the late eighties and nineties before it ebbed out with this being one of the last gasps.
And Episode Zero is grotty, explicitly depicting material. That Ichi's parents, through consensual S&M sex the room next to their oldest son, are part of the cause of the confusion he has between sex and violence. How it depicts Ichi beginning to torture and kill small animals in school to relieve his inferiority from bullying, including the school rabbit which leads to him being blackmailed by another student. Clichés mixing with pertinent topics on Japanese culture, especially the issue of bullying and the stress school students and teenagers go through which appears in a lot of Japanese films, but without enough time forty minutes (six or so for end credits) to fully work. It's also an entire rewrite of the far more interesting back story for the Ichi character that you get in the live action film, a far more vague figure whose only past detail, about a trauma at high school, is fake and his handler (played by director Shinya Tsukamoto) being a much more interesting figure than the version found in the animated version. The cameo by the character Kakihara, voiced by Takashi Miike in what counts as merely grunts and a few words, isn't that interesting either when you have Tadanobu Asano as a fully fleshed out character in the feature film.
The tone for Episode Zero, whilst with potential to be a deliberately provocative story like the live action film, does merely become scuzzy to the point I actually felt guilt viewing this, questioning having actually sat through the film. It's brazen in what it explicitly details but can come off as pointlessly offensive, particularly when you get to female martial artist, Midori, who takes an interest in Ichi only to be shown to be turned on by violence and eggs him on in a motel room to beat her up to erotic climax, barely stumbling on top of a knife's edge in terms of avoiding being crass and dubious. It's strange considering that the screenwriter was able to take similarly problematic ideas in the live action version and make such subjects more nuisance and provocative, the same found in a later Miike work Gozu (2003). As much the issue, alongside the tiny length, comes from the production itself feeling low budget, cheap and nasty in a way that's befitting the early processors but from a weird transition period of the early first few years of the 2000s, where the switch from hand drawn to computer assisted animation was awkward.
Even when placed next to another problematic anime from the yesteryear like Violence Jack (1986-1990), as notoriously cheap as some of them were gruesome, Episode Zero is dank in appearance even to those controversial works in character design and style. The exception is the music by Yui Takase which is the one thing of legitimate positive to take away from Episode Zero, memorable and helping to bandage up the glaring issues a little, an unnerving and edgy soundtrack to match the nastiness onscreen, including a peculiar hip hop song on the end credits where the rapped lyrics are heard under dialogue clips from the anime in a ramshackle way. (Sadly his only other credit on Anime News Network is Samurai XXX (2004), samurai themed hentai porn). Value to Episode Zero will vary drastically; for myself, it's curiosity, but as someone who'll defend the Miike film as an intelligent, transgressive cult movie, this pales in complete comparison and doesn't look good next to it.