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Shinya Tsukamoto, the veteran Japanese genre bad boy who turned man into metal in his cyberpunk horror series Tetsuo, gets back to basics with his latest feature, the succinctly titled Killing. It opens with molten steel in a furnace and is punctuated throughout by the thwack and dizzying blur of accelerated swordplay. But this distilled action piece — clocking in at a lean 80 minutes — concerns itself also with the heavy burden of taking a life. That responsibility weighs on a young ronin, a masterless wandering samurai whose warrior skills are suddenly in demand in the mid-19th century after 250 years of peace.
Narratively speaking, this is pretty thin gruel, but the fanboys were whipped up from the first frames during the film’s Venice premiere, their excitement no doubt fueled by a thrillingly propulsive score from the director’s longtime composer Chu Ishikawa, who died late last year. Killing next plays in Toronto’s Masters showcase and while it won’t go down as a major entry in the culty director’s canon, some specialized distribution based on his name alone should follow.
Tsukamoto reserves a plum role for himself as a stoical swordsman with a deadly blade, but the central focus is the much younger Mokunoshin Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu), who has been earning a living in the rice paddies of an isolated farm outside of Edo, ringed by lush green hills. Mokunoshin keeps his sword skills sharp in daily sparring sessions with the farmer’s son Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda), whose humble station as an agricultural worker hasn’t stopped him from dreaming of being a valiant samurai, serving the shogun.
The film was shot by Tsukamoto and Satoshi Hayashi in a rough-and-ready handheld style, and from the very first practice clash between Mokunoshin and Ichisuke, the shaky-cam calisthenics yield mixed rewards. On one hand there’s wild energy in the fights, pumped up by Ishikawa’s pounding drums and Masayo Kitada’s muscular sound design. On the other, much of the choreographic detail is sacrificed to speed and urgency, making many of the sequences hard on the eyes or difficult to follow, especially later when multiple bodies are involved.
When talk of war reaches the rural village, it becomes clear that Mokunoshin will soon leave to join the fight, a departure viewed with envy by Ichisuke but with apprehension by his sister Yu (Yu Aoi). “Will you die?” she repeatedly asks Mokunoshin. While there’s a sweet quarrelsomeness to their mutual attraction, Tsukamoto slips in a touch of characteristic kink in their demonstrations of affection, notably when she gives his finger a sharp bite and he responds by gripping her throat in a chokehold.
Tsukamoto’s character, Jirozaemon Sawamura, is introduced fighting a duel in the nearby woods, and while his opponent is far more aggressive, he doesn’t stand a chance, losing the use of his hand with just a quick bloody flick of Jirozaemon’s sword. The soft-spoken stranger is looking to assemble a band of warriors to take to Kyoto to deal with the civil unrest; he signs up Mokunoshin, and given the shortage of other recruits, agrees to take on Ichisuke as a reserve. But their journey is delayed when Mokunoshin collapses with a fever and hot-headed Ichisuke makes the mistake of tangling with an ugly bunch of outlaw ronin headed by Sezaemon Genda (Tatsuya Nakamura) who have been hanging around the village threatening trouble.
The story grows a bit wobbly in the violent, slightly nuts final act. But questions of honor, courage and vengeance come into play as Mokunoshin gets ready to rumble, facing the truth that he’s never used his sword to kill. Meanwhile, Jirozaemon sets himself his own test to prove his worthiness to serve a master.
The film looks like it was made on a limited budget, with its small cast and single setting requiring only basic period production design. Basically, it’s a chamber piece in which a turbulent transitional moment in Japanese history remains in the distant background. That renders it quite different from Tsukamoto’s last feature, the 2014 Fires on the Plain remake, which staged the theater of war as a gory frontline battle from start to finish.
Killing is a little more reflective, peeling back the mystique of the samurai to consider the real cost of taking lives. It’s not exactly loaded with complexity, something that could be said also for the performances. But the tremendously effective use of music — often incorporating shimmering wind chimes — provides intermittent moments of visceral force.
Cast: Sosuke Ikematsu, Yu Aoi, Tatsuya Nakamura, Shinya Tsukamoto, Ryusei Maeda
Production company: Kaijyu Theater
Director-screenwriter-producer: Shinya Tsukamoto
Directors of photography: Shinya Tsukamoto, Satoshi Hayashi
Production designer: Tsuyoshi Endo
Music: Chu Ishikawa
Editor: Shinya Tsukamoto
Sales: Nikkatsu Corporation
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
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