Some auteurs bend to the demands of a genre, while others bend the genre to themselves. Shinya Tsukamoto falls in the latter category with Killing – a movie featuring samurais that isn’t so much of a samurai movie as it is a Shinya Tsukamoto movie that has samurais in it. Lemme explain…
In film, a creator with a consistent set of obsessions, use of themes and a distinct style throughout his or her work is an auteur – a term that came out of The French New Wave. Tsukamoto burst onto the filmmaking scene in 1989 with the highly influential industrial cyberpunk body horror film Tetsuo: The Iron Man , which laid out the creative obsessions he would continue to explore throughout many of his films: the destruction and reconfiguration of the body; the physical manifestation of repression, obsession and angst; and dangerous relationships that lead to explosive violence. (He’s often compared to David Cronenberg for having overlapping interests.) These tropes are explored consistently throughout his career, whether through a boxing movie (Tokyo Fist), a crime tale (Bullet Ballet), an erotic drama (Snake of June), a ghost story (Nightmare Detective) or a war movie (Fires on the Plain).
With Killing, Tsukamoto uses the samurai movie to stage his obsessions. It begins in a small farming village in feudal Japan that’s hosting a young samurai (Sosuke Ikematsu) in return for his protection. He also trains one farmer’s son (Ryusei Maeda), who longs to be a swordsman, and has fallen for the boy’s sister (Yu Aoi). As the wandering warrior is about to leave, an older samurai, played by Tsukamoto, shows up to the village to recruit him to fight for the emperor. At the same time the young samurai takes ill, and then a roving band of thieves arrives and attacks the boy.
Now, in an average samurai would likely team up with the older samurai to to fight the intruders, save the village and prove their honour. But, since this is a Tsukamoto movie, the emphasis is on the hero’s mental state as we learn that he’s averse to violence and has never killed, setting him at odds with the older samurai and further complicating his already somewhat perverse relationship with the young woman.
There is a minimal amount of swordplay here– short bursts of violence that are likely more historically accurate but certainly not that cinematic – some surreal gore, and a climax that involves a lot of anguished yelling in the forest. Tsukamoto denies the viewer the standard pleasures of the genre in order to delve into the mental lives of the characters and question the nihilism of the samurai hero in general. Killing is more fascinating than it is outwardly exciting. Much of the action sequences are shot handheld and edited in a way that you can’t tell what’s happening but you are getting dizzy.
So, to get back to where we began, there are auteurs who can bend to the genre – the greatest example is Alfred Hitchcock, who made popular mainstream movies with a more subtle yet consistent set of obsessions running throughout them – and those like Tsukamoto, who bend the genre to their interests, regardless of mainstream tastes. So, when it comes to Killing, if you seek plenty of action, guts and swordplay cuts, this one’s not for you. But if you’ve followed the director’s work (as the host reminded us at the TIFF screening, many of his films have premiered at the festival over the years) because you find his particular authorship in the medium compelling, then you’ll be right at home on this journey through the heads of his strange samurai warriors.