REVIEW: Killing (2018)

Since his feature debut with 1989’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man, Shinya Tsukamoto has long held a reputation as one of Japanese cinema’s greatest enfants terrible. His independent productions, from Tetsuo and its sequels to Bullet Ballet, Tokyo Fist, and A Snake of June, have consistently forged their own distinctive aesthetic texture while operating well out of the studio-run mainstream. 2018’s Killing sees Tsukamoto transfer his vigorous hand-held photography, sharp editing, and innovative use of sound to one of the most specifically Japanese of genres: the chambara, or samurai film.

Killing follows Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu), a masterless samurai (or ronin) staying at a small farming community. While helping prepare for the harvest, he tutors farmer’s son Ichisuke (Ryūsei Maeda) in swordplay and grows closer to Ichisuke’s sister Yu (Yu Aoi). The arrival of an older ronin, Sawamura (Tsukamoto), followed by a suspicious gang of men, come to challenge this peaceful existence.

The first striking element of Killing is how Tsukamoto’s filmmaking style collides with the chambara genre. Typically Japan’s samurai pictures have a certain formal style to them – a style that Tsukamoto aggressively up-ends with unexpected close-ups, abstract framing, and emotionally-charged camera work. The effect is not simply a remarkable level of energy and momentum, but an unexpected degree of realism. We may be entertained by traditional depictions of pre-Meiji era samurai, but it is difficult to actually relate to them. Here the immediacy makes this period of Japanese history come to life in a way I honestly have not seen before.

The second striking element is Tsukamoto’s presentation of the characters. Occupying a period setting for the first time, he palpably focuses on the lower classes: farmer and thieves. Even the two featured samurai are without masters, and thus dislocated from society’s formal hierarchy. Stripped of the more formal traditions of the genre, the other elements develop a renewed emphasis and a more thoughtful handling than one might expect. Violence is part-and-parcel of chambara – the term literally means ‘sword fighting film’ – but the visceral impact of killing a human being is not often explored. There is actually very little on-screen violence in Killing, but when it occurs it does so with shattering power and impact.

Performances are strong across the board, particularly Yu Aoi who provides the most human face of the picture. Also notable is punk rocker Tatsuya Nakamura, already a veteran of Tsukamoto’s films, as the gang leader Genda.

Killing represents a genuine progression among Tsukamoto’s films, pushing his work in a new direction while maintaining the distinct qualities that have made him such a critical favourite around the world. It remains his most recent directorial work, although he continues to act, but hope remains he will return at some point to advance his style and methods even further.

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