This unflinchingly graphic and extremely violent piece won its young director (who was a third-year college student when he made it) praise at festivals from Tokyo to Berlin, offending more than a few sensibilities along the way.
Focusing on the left-wing radical student scene of Japan in the 1970s, Kichiku has widely been interpreted as criticism of the era and the politics. This could also be why it garnered so much praise. However, for a filmmaker born in 1974, seventies leftist counter-culture would seem an odd choice of subject to criticise. It is much more likely that the scene he depicts serves as an example and that forced hierarchies, over-ambition and inept leadership are Kumakiri's true targets.
Aizawa, the leader of a left-wing student group, is locked up in a jail cell. When his cell mate Fujiwara is released, Aizawa asks him to look up and join his group. When he does, he finds that Aizawa's girlfriend Masami is now in charge, but that radical ideas are few and far between. Instead the cause seems an excuse for these students to hang out and party together and for a few hangers-on to find some sense of an own identity. Masami switches sexual partners just about every night and only two out of the ten or so members of the group actually have any sense of rebellion. Aizawa's imminent release and Masami's temporary, status quo leadership form a sense of security and comfort.
When news reaches them that Aizawa has committed suicide in his jail cell, the bubble bursts. Uncertainty over the future of the group and questions of loyalty surface. Soon, the merest of doubts is enough to awake a paranoia in everyone and Masami in particular. When one of the members expresses his wishes to leave the group for their more politically active rivals, they take him into the woods, where he is brutally beaten. The beatings soon turn to torture, the torture to maiming, the maiming to murder. In a true descent into hell, the others are dragged along with Masami's madness and the members of the group turn on one another.
Kichiku is an extremely rare piece of filmmaking: a thought-provoking film that makes its point by using the tools of the exploitation movie. A head being blown in half with a shotgun, a penis amputation, decapitation by samurai sword, rape, etc. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri doesn't shrink back from gore or violence.
However, Kichiku is not about showing creative kills. It is not a collection of graphically violent acts, a freak show along the lines of an 80s slasher film. What makes it so shocking are the reasons behind the violence; the group dynamics, the miniature society of the student group that degenerates beneath the surface. A degeneration that goes unnoticed by everyone until it's too late. It is a very real danger for a society that has turned hierarchy and the group unit into an ideal.