Killing, at first glance, can seem something of a left-field move for cult director Shinya Tsukamoto; it’s a slow-paced period piece that expends nearly an hour of its runtime before anything actually gets murdered on-screen, dabbling in long sections of intentional narrative meanderings, to add a stated presence of monotony to each event. Every moment that anticipates some starting action, like the supposed beginning of masterless samurai Mokunoshin’s (Sosuke Ikematsu) journey to Edo — which is cut short by an oncoming fever before he even leaves his village — has an equally mundane resolution. Our central protagonist, himself, is a victim of failed expectations: he’s a master swordsman who refuses to kill, and he’s paired, in stark opposition, with another wandering ronin, Jirozaemon Sawamura (Tsukamoto), who sees no issue with the bloodshed that always seems to follow him.
It’s this jarring contrast that binds the narrative core of Killing, reflecting the film’s stringent dichotomy between Mokunshin’s suppression and Sawamura’s disinhibition. Even when there is on-screen violence, Tsukamoto rarely approaches these moments with the intentionality of glorifying the talents of either man; these scenes are frantically edited, rapidly cutting between extreme close-ups and stationary medium shots in an effect that’s often nauseating. And as the film builds towards its hysterical climax — slowly becoming the straight-forwardly violent genre flick that one would expect from this material in the process — one can start drawing parallels between this and the grotesque inhumanity of Tetsuo: The Iron Man: the hyperactive, yet detached, tone; the feeling of general helplessness against a brutal social order; and the eventual descent into madness that befalls our lead. This isn’t to suggest that Killing is as brazenly shocking (or even half as entertaining) as Tsukamoto’s debut feature. But as the film progresses, one can recognize that this gonzo auteur really hasn’t strayed that far from his original tactics.
You can currently stream Killing on MUBI.
Published as part of Japan Cuts 2019 | Dispatch 2.