Vintage Violence: Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s “Killing”
To follow Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s trajectory over the last four decades is to see the director reveal himself as not just merely versatile — from science fiction to melodrama to action and gangster films — but as also one of a handful of filmmakers, along with Ken Russell and Andrzej Żuławski, who might easily straddle the line between exploitation and the art house film. Tsukamoto will often use the film language of his ero guro roots to explore subjects that have preoccupied him throughout his career: parental instinct and psychosis in Kotoko (2011), an identity crisis in Gemini (1999), or paraphilia in A Snake of June (2002).
Tsukamoto’s oeuvre often dissects the popular images of film violence in order to reveal their origins, be they psychosexual or institutional. In Killing (2018), which makes its North American debut appropriately in the Masters program at the Toronto International Film Festival, Tsukamoto again uses the conventions of ero guro and exploitation films to address the implications and causes of its subject: killing, specifically the utility, if any, of killing people to settle disputes, and distills this into the register of the samurai film. Set in the twilight of Tokugawa shogunate and on the eve of the Boshin War of 1868, old rōnin Sawamura (Tsukamoto) is looking to recruit young warriors to fight at Edo (now Tokyo). He eventually crosses paths with Tsuzuki (Sôsuke Ikematsu), a young samurai working as a hired hand at a farm. Tsuzuki often spars with Ichisuke (Ryûsei Maeda), who dreams of being a member of the warrior class, and has an uneasy relationship with Yu (Yū Aoi) woven through with occasional violent kink. The film’s centerpiece — a sequence of brutal fighting between Sawamura and a gang of outlaws who have been pillaging the farm — at once recalls Tsukamoto’s ero guro sensibilities (as with the shot of a katana pinning a man’s cheek to a log through his mouth) and takes issue with the senselessness of vengeance killing when Sawamura refuses to kill the outlaw outright and tells him to “reflect on his life.”
In a sense, the appearance of Sawamura is an instance of the institutional violence of the warrior class that the film’s young characters emulate. This is not unlike the buried conceit of countless samurai films, which are in large part about the subjugation of individuals to their institutions. A number of Tsukamoto’s signature images — convulsing figures, extreme close-ups, and trembling handheld camera — forge a recurring image throughout the film: a pair of bloodied hands that struggle to grip a katana, at once denoting and connoting Tsuzuki’s apprehension over the act of killing and institutional pressure to do so. This is juxtaposed with images of the burning embers and flames of a coal fire shot in extreme close-up to the point of abstraction, and a pair of hands confidently forging a sword on an anvil. Conversely, Tsukamoto portrays the connective tissue between Yu’s propensity for violence and her sexuality, as with a scene in which she suckles and eventually bites Tsuzuki’s fingers that he has stuck through a wall. Yu’s compulsion to punch men in the chest and feign attacks on them with a katana also alludes to the ubiquity of violence in exchanges between the marginalized — farmers, women, and so on — in that time and place.
Tsukamoto’s style suits such a depiction of characters under duress and a society on the brick of change. What is at first glance a samurai film, Killing thus becomes a study of institutional fallout and emotional conflicts seen through the lens of genre film language.
Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s Killing makes its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11.