Film / Reviews

‘Killing’: A modern take on a samurai staple

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Screening in competition at this year’s Venice Film Festival, “Killing” is veteran provocateur Shinya Tsukamoto’s first venture into the samurai genre. Made, like most of Tsukamoto’s films, on a tiny budget and tight schedule, it does not attempt the scale of classics like “Seven Samurai” (1954) or “Yojimbo” (1961).

Instead, Tsukamoto’s camera moves in close to capture the weight of the swords, the razor lethality of the blades and the swirling chaos of the action. Some of the fight scenes, with their slowly gathering menace and swift death, recall Akira Kurosawa’s afore-mentioned masterpieces, but Tsukamoto’s overall approach is more intimate and less heroic. As he has said in interviews, the film is the antithesis of the classic samurai movie, in which good battles evil. Much like his 2014 World War II film “Fires on the Plain,” with its anti-war message, “Killing” questions the deadly violence that is the genre’s bedrock.

How, the young samurai Mokunoshin Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu) asks himself, can one man bring himself to kill another? Expert with the sword, he hesitates to use it even when his life and honor are at stake.

Killing (Zan,)
Rating
Run Time 80 mins.
Language JAPANESE

Fans of the genre, eager to see slicing and dicing, may become impatient with Mokunoshin’s quest for an answer, but the action, when it comes, is all the more impactful for the hero’s struggles with his conscience and courage.

The story is simple: At the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868) samurai rebels are joining forces to overthrow the shogun, while others are rushing to defend him. Meanwhile, Mokunoshin is living quietly in a village not far from the capital. To keep himself in fighting shape, he trains an impetuous young farmer, Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda), in swordsmanship as the boy’s tempestuous older sister Yu (Yu Aoi) looks on. While worried that Ichisuke will get himself into fatal trouble, she is attracted to his teacher, though she and Mokunoshin exchange only the briefest of glances.

Then an older samurai, Sawamura (Tsukamoto), arrives in the village and recruits Mokunoshin and Ichisuke to join a band he is assembling to fight on the shogun’s side. But first they have to deal with bandits lurking on the village outskirts, led by the ruthless Genda (Tatsuya Nakamura).

This “samurai defends the peasant village from outlaws” story is familiar from “Seven Samurai.” And Sawamura, with his close-shaven head and air of quiet authority, recalls the older film’s samurai leader played by Takashi Shimura. But “Killing” soon takes a radically different direction (Tsukamoto says he was inspired by Kon Ichikawa’s 1973 nihilistic samurai actioner “The Wanderers”). The attraction between Mokushin and Yu intensifies, as does Yu’s anger at the forces of violence gathering around her and those she loves. And Sawamura proves to be a dangerous ally, fanatically devoted to a deadly code.

Certain shots, such as a medium close-up of Sawamura’s death-mask-like face glowing in the darkness, are starkly evocative, but others, as in the sword-swinging brawl between the samurai and bandits, recall Tsukamoto’s origins in cyber-punk cinema, with its disturbing mix of violence and grotesquery. The slashing score of long-time collaborator Chu Ishikawa (who died shortly after filming was completed) adds to the effect.

No, “Killing” is not your father’s samurai movie, but it’s all Tsukamoto, who has always been about the dark strangeness of the human heart, even when his hero wears a topknot.