If one is to assess Killing as the work of Shinya Tsukamoto, you may find it kind of lacking as it is less spectacular than the director’s 1980s and 90s works. But that does not take away the complexity of the themes that he is dealing with. Structurally, the film is closer to Gemini (1999), which tried to expand its narrative while moving within a limited number of spaces. This film’s expansion is mostly at the abstract level as Killing addresses the title both as a concept and an event.
Killing follows Mokunoshin Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu), a masterless samurai who resides at the residence of a family in a farming community. Mokunoshin is preparing for his departure to join the war in Edo. He is then asked by seasoned warrior Sawamura (Ryusei Maeda), who is recruiting samurai and reserves, to join him on his way to Edo. The film explores the function of Mokunoshin’s and Sawamura’s line of vocation.
Perhaps, we can say that Mokunoshin stands for an idealist approach to samurai work based on theory and Sawamura, more of a practical warrior. The movie suggests that Mokunoshin, despite being a skilled samurai, has never been in a fatal encounter. On the contrary, the film dedicates a sequence to showing Sawamura fighting and winning a duel against another samurai.
The film builds up slow but is enough to register what’s at stake for every decision of Mokunoshin. Opening with an extreme close up of a steel being forged into a sword which then cuts to a trembling hand carrying a sword do not really mean any deception with the narrative. It then meditates the process of the first kill as a fatalistic event. What is a sword for? As depicted in the film, the sword is never really a function of farming work, which Mokunoshin helps wuth. The film does not lie – a sword is meant to kill.
To deal with fate in this exploration, Killing does not really step out of Tsukamoto’s cybernetic explorations. By cybernetic, we mean the abstraction of the human as combined with the objects he uses to shape the world, whether machines or other useful objects and technology. But unlike the almost alien depiction of an actual marriage between man and metal in Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), a gun in Bullet Ballet (1998), or a camera in A Snake of June (2002), the sword in Killing actually makes the narrative more familiar.
The sword’s function is more than technological. Set during wartime in feudal Japan, the film calls for an exploration of the nature of crime and killing under the conditions of landlord subservience. Via dialogue suggestions, the film makes the class divide apparent: from who can join the war to the qualities of a lumpen, in the embodiment of the bandits, in this kind of society. Both of which are involved in the nature of the question it explores.
Killing then becomes a question of the act of killing in a class-divided society. How does one start killing? At least in the period that the film covers, it suggests of the act as one which a certain class has a privilege of: the samurai. It is in this sense that the exploration becomes cybernetic. Tsukamoto does not abstract the film on a metaphysical level. As much as outside the frame, as Sawamura suggests, there are “greater enemies”, they still remain imaginary as compared with the threats posed by the bandits.
The violent event leads slowly towards a paradigm shift with Mokunoshin. At times, there seems to be a shift of focus in the film from being class conscious, but the film reverts back to its agenda and resets from an issue of violence to an issue of class-function. The spectacular violence is not used in the film to divert attention, and the character of Sawamura assures this by being the model samurai that he is.
Mokunoshin, on the other hand, seem to be the one out of place. Or to put it more precisely, out of time. As if he’s a character from a modernist story. Mokunoshin, being a skilled theorist, seem to become an image of cynicism. But he questions less of the stereotypes, Mokunoshin’s character questions the nature of their function as samurai – how does one fulfill its task? He understands the need for this question since he is not dealing with imagined enemies, but with people who he happened to deal with. But the asking why is there such a function did not dawn to him.
If there’s anything that is stylistically consistent with Tsukamoto’s other works, it is that the film again exhibits his ability to present complexities on a very limited form both in space and time. Which unlike most approaches, say on violence and killing, the film does not reflect a lot on the abstract humanistic aspects of the act. Rather, it considers how is it really done and what is its social role. By making the film more relevant to the present times, it becomes an exploration of the relationship between the act and class privilege.
Killing is showing on November 13 and 16 at the San Diego Asian Film Festival.