The first kill is the hardest.
With such words, old master swordsman Sawamura (Shin’ya Tsukamoto) tries to convince young ronin Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu) to set his mind on fulfilling destiny. Good news came in, from a samurai point of view, that decades of relative peace may come to an end. War being the health of the Shogunate state, Tsuzuki’s misplaced morality over codes is a source of anxiety and violence rather than bringing peace as hordes of ronins still wander over the land. It is a time and place in which the word peace does not fit the definition.
With Killing, director Shin’ya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo, Tokyo Fist, the remake of Fires in the plain) leaves steampunk behind to embrace the more traditional chanbara (Japanese sword fight) film. If his take on the subject does not include the whole hyper-violence extravaganza of his prior efforts, it is still not a peaceful walk in the park.
The characterization of old Sawamura by the director himself is effective. At first it bears some resemblance to Takashi Shimura’s portrayal of elder Shimaya in Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurais (1954). But behind his stupendous and apparently peaceful poise, lies a killing machine still to be tested on an actual battlefield. He is fully into defending an ancient set of rules and ideal, over greater good, soon to vanish (the action takes place toward the end of the Edo period). Not evil nor good. This is just the way of the samurai.
The (often) violent losses of young Tsuzuki are seen through a value of life that paralyses him, while Sawamura tries to pull him his way into his own set of values in which the dangerous hordes of wandering ronins and the peasants are merely extras, cannon fodder. Tsuzuki era is yet to come. Sawamura’s world is fading.
Behind its minimalist approach, as it is about the two main characters and what they stand for, Tsukamoto’s choice to shoot Killing, in digitally handheld camera, natural light, tight, chaotic and flat framing, adding his usual flair for pounding soundscape and nervous editing, ultimately makes full sense.
FNC Screening: Sunday Oct 7, 9PM, Cinema du Parc