Review: Killing

Director Shinya Tsukamoto wants people to come to his latest feature prepared for something different, which may sound like quasi-spoiler fodder given that it’s Tsukamoto’s first genuine genre film, namely a jidaigeki or, more familiarly, a samurai flick. But anyone familiar with Tsukamoto’s previous work will likely expect more than the usual gore, given the filmmaker’s penchant for grotesquerie. And, to a certain extent, there is a lot of blood, though not as much as there was in his World War II churner, Fires on the Plain. What’s different is his protagonist, Mokunoshin (Sosuke Ikematsu), a ronin who has decided he will have nothing to do with killing. Modern viewers will think of him as a pacifist, but the impulse is deeper, less philosophical. Mokunoshin is physically sickened by violence.

In fact, we soon learn that Mokunoshin has never killed a man, which, historically speaking, makes sense since the film is set at the tale end of the Edo era, during which samurai had no one to kill since it was a time of forced peace. However, a day of reckoning is coming since the forces loyal to the emperor wish to overthrow the shogun, thus setting the stage for a bloody confrontation that will test the samurais’ mettle. Mokunoshin wants nothing to do with it, and is laying low in a remote forest and working for a farmer, whose son, Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda), has romantic ideas of the warrior’s life. When he learns of Mokunoshin’s vocation, he talks him into giving him lessons. One day they happen upon a duel between two men who are obviously samurai, and while the demonstration of skills whets Ichisuke’s appetites, it repulses Mokunoshin. As it turns out, the winner of the duel, Sawamura (Tsukamoto), is rounding up samurai to join in the coming battle in Kyoto. Stoical and preternaturally polite, he imposes on the farmer and, naturally, learns that Mokunoshin is a samurai and tries to persuade him to join the crusade. He refuses as elegantly as he can.

This dynamic is interrupted by a band of outlaw ronin, who take what they want. Though initially content to simply intimidate the farmer’s family and get some grub out of it, the hot-headed Ichinosuke provokes them into action, which includes a near rape of his sister (Yu Aoi), who constantly berates Mokunoshin for his dithering attitude, not only in relation to his duty as a samurai, but toward her as a possible sex partner (he’s reduced to masturbating with her in his thoughts). Eventually, matters reach a boiling point, with Sawamura taking on the bandits and Mokunoshin holding back, an affront to the former’s honor that leads to another duel, this time between the stoic and the refusenik.

Though the movie has a consistency of tone and theme that makes it compelling as the kind of anti-samurai story Tsukamoto obviously intends it to be, there’s something about Mokunoshin that sets the viewer’s teeth on edge. Perhaps it’s the way the character is conceived, or maybe it’s Ikematsu’s performance, but Mokunoshin’s depressive behavior becomes old really quickly. For an 80-minute movie punctuated by some potently graphic swordplay, Killing sure does drag.

In Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Shibuya Euro Space (03-3461-0211).

Killing home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Shinya Tsukamoto/Kaijyu Theater

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