By – Gareth Jones
For fans of Shinya Tsukamoto and his takes on violence and sexuality, new perspectives on the samurai genre
Shinya Tsukamoto exploded into the cinematic world in 1989 with his shocking and innovative feature, Testuo: The Iron Man. Ever since then, he has continued to push boundaries of audience expectations and tolerance for representations for violence and sexuality. Killing is his sixteenth feature length film and his first foray into the traditional Japanese samurai genre. He brings to it his own approach from frenetic handheld camerawork and editing to gruesome depictions of violence and sex often at the same time. However, it is not as substantial in this film as in his other works and serves as a more contemplative entry into his cinematic contributions.
Like many samurai films, it is set during the mid-19th century Edo period in Japan, a time when masterless samurai (ronin) were forced to find work and maintain their ethical behavior. In this case that is Mokunoshin Tsuzuki who is protecting farmers from thieves and bandits, a common trope of the genre. He is training a young, exuberant farmer the ways of the samurai and is spotted by a samurai recruiter (played by Shinya himself) who after viewing the training recruits both of the young men to go and work for the local lord. At first, this seems like the answer to their prayers, but then the bandits show up and threaten the farmers. This is where Tsukamoto turns the genre even more on its head. Sosuke, in spite of being an exceptional fighter, has never actually killed anyone and his fear of battle manifests. Instead of the typical warrior who builds into a savior, here we have one descending into doubt and terror. It challenges the whole representation of the samurai and asks the audience to look at their own expectations and compliance in desire for violence as a solution.
The acting of all the major roles is excellent from Sosuke Ikenatsu as Tsuzuki to Yu Aoi as Yu, the love interest and especially of Tsukamoto as the samurai recruiter Jirozaemon Sawamura. Tsukamoto often acts in his film, and is always willing to set the tone for all performances by pushing himself to physical extremes and challenging representations of humanity. All the actors are required to join him in this journey of exploration of internal battles that manifest in physical punishment. Tsukamoto is also the writer for most of his films, and he is also a cinematographer and editor on the film giving strong argument for his auteurist credentials. His longtime composer Chu Ishikawa returns to create complementary music that matches the ideas and themes of the film.
The film is not an easy watch, forcing the audience to look at the samurai genre from a new perspective, but it is worth watching for those willing to challenge themselves. Of course, if you are already a fan of Tsukamoto’s work, this will actually seem a bit tame in comparison. It even may show the more mature and contemplative side of Tsukamoto, and I believe that to be a good reason to seek it out.
Available to stream on MUBI and Amazon Prime
Written by: Gareth Jones
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