‘Killing’ is the latest film from cult favourite director Shinya Tsukamoto, best known for his underground-style body horror films ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’, ‘Tetsuo II: Body Hammer’ and ‘Tetsuo: The Bullet Man’.
The film stars Sosuke Ikematsu (‘Shoplifters’) as Mokunoshin Tsuzuki, a masterless samurai in mid-19th century Japan. Mokunoshin has been helping the farmers get the rice harvest in, while giving swordplay lessons to hot-headed farmer’s son Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda), whose sister Yu (Yu Aoi, ‘Birds Without Names’) watches from the sidelines. The peasant girl disapproves of her brother’s martial training – but at the same time carries a torch for Mokunoshin.
Tsukamoto (the director also serves as scriptwriter, cameraman and editor) plays Jirozaemon Sawamura, a calm ronin who is introduced as he casually carves up a rival during a duel. He takes his younger colleague under his wing when the two meet by chance in the remote farming community, recruiting Mokunoshin and Ichisuke to serve the Edo shogun in Kyoto.
However, just as they are about to leave on this adventure, the younger samurai collapses from a mysterious fever. Then Jirozaemon attacks a band of ronin led by Sezaemon Genda (Tatsuya Nakamura) who have set up camp outside the village, with a conflict that had earlier been deescalated by Mokunoshin. When the ronin gang commit an act of bloody retaliation, one thing becomes apparent: Mokunoshin, while skilled as a swordsman, has never killed a man before and has a few performance anxiety issues.
As you’d expect from the pulsating brain behind ‘Tokyo Fist’, ‘Nightmare Detective’ and the more mature ‘Fires on the Plain’, what starts as a conventional, low-budget samurai flick randomly introduces some masochistic romance before dolloping out some contemplative musings on the nature of conflict, sex, duty and masculinity over the course of its 80-minute runtime.
Unfortunately, the impact of its gory swordplay scenes (less violent than Tsukamoto’s other films) is undercut by shaky, confusing camera work and rapid editing.
The score (composed by Chu Ishikawa, Tsukamoto’s long-term collaborator, who passed away upon the completion of the film) is suitably spiritual and haunting for a film set entirely around small fields and caves, with rhythmic drums and moody choral voices.
The reluctant samurai trope is something fans of the genre have seen many times before, notably in modern classics like Yoji Yamada's acclaimed Samurai Trilogy ('Twilight Samurai', 'The Hidden Blade' and 'Love and Honour'). While it isn't treading fresh thematic territory, does 'Killing' at least deliver some satisfying... uh, killing... to spice up the proceedings?
Unfortunately, the impact of its gory swordplay scenes (less violent than Tsukamoto’s other films) is undercut by shaky, confusing camera work and rapid editing. Also, for such a short film, the last 20 minutes are disappointingly meandering, with characters getting lost and chasing each other around some dense metaphoric and literal woods.
While ‘Killing’ starts strongly and explores some interesting themes, it’s hard to ignore how unfinished and less-than-satisfying this film feels.