The samurai is an archetypal action hero which has been remixed and re-invented in a million ways since the days of Kurosawa. Sergio Leone drew directly from the legendary Japanese filmmaker to create his iconic Westerns, replacing the katana and bun with a revolver and a ten-gallon hat. Star Wars switched the blade for a laser beam and moved the whole thing to another galaxy, while films like Ghost Dog brought the Bushido code into a world more like our own. In each iteration, the appeal remains the same: the hero is a man with the violent talents to make for exciting action cinema, but with a rigorous moral code that allows the audience to root for him even as he’s slicing people down. Essentially, the samurai embodies the two-fold relationship we have with violence.
With Killing, Shinya Tsukamoto pushes us to look harder at our willingness to cheer for the man with the sword.
Monkunoshin Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a samurai without a master, living a quiet life as part of a small village. He offers them protection, or at least the sense that they are protected, and in return they house and feed him. Monkunoshin moves with a tranquil kind of grace that is translated into his elegant swordplay, especially as he spars with the wannabe warrior Ichisuke (Rysuei Maeda). The young farmer is all frantic energy, yelling wildly as he hurls himself time and time again at Monkunoshin, the samurai flowing delicately between his blows before laying him out with a single precise strike. Ichisuke’s enthusiasm is charming but also troubling, powered by a mad will to prove himself through violence. Conversely, Monkunoshin’s calm mask seems to cover something anxious and uncertain. He fights cleverly, carefully and well, but never seems to take any great satisfaction in it. He seems more fully himself relaxing amongst nature or bantering around a campfire than when wielding a sword.
Ichisuke’s sister, Yu, (Yu Aoi) shares a conflicted fascination with Monkunoshin, sceptical of his influence upon her brother but entranced by him all the same. Monkunoshin seems equally fixated with her but is unable to access his feelings, pushing them down beneath the surface of his stoic samurai demeanour. Their feelings are repressed, left to fester away in the dark before bubbling up in acts of strange violence. A push, a punch, teeth sunk into a hand. Unable to express their passion directly, they channel it into other kinds of physical contact,
The film opens on a sparring session between Monkunoshin and Ichisuke, wooden poles in place of actual katana. As the weapons posses no great threat, their duel is more of a dance than a fight, but the rapid, unsteady sway of the camera refuses to frame their fight with any rhythm or elegance. These battles will not be pretty, there will be no salivatory slow-motion or thrilling acrobatics. Instead, Tsukamoto emphasises the weight of the weapons being swung, the thud as they clatter off one another and the whirr of a blow narrowly missed. When the real swords come out, the camera lingers on the blade edges, calling attention to their sharpness, the ease with which they could sever flesh.
Two arrivals set the story in motion. The first is a group of unkempt, armed men who are found lounging near the village one day, prompting the villagers to retreat fearfully inside their homes, wishing the strange men would leave. The second is Jirozaemon Sawamura (Shinya Tsukamoto), an older, similarly masterless samurai, searching for warriors to join him. Although they know very well how dangerous he is, the villagers respect rather than fear Sawamura because of his orderly manner and known status. The other men are treated as a threat because they are rough-looking and unknown “others”. Like suburbanites taught who to fear by the evening news, the villagers invent an imaginary threat and cower before it. Their fear sees them escalate the situation, using violent means to fend off a danger that didn’t exist until they forced it to.
Ichisuke is mocked by the mob one day and, filled with the desire to prove himself through takes them on. He gets beaten up but escapes without serious injuries. As Monkunoshin points out, the group could have killed him if they wanted to but chose to show restraint. They had no desire to elevate a petulant scrap into a life-or-death battle. Sawamura takes the attack as a personal insult and, in spite of Monkunoshin’s pleas to let it go, goes after the men, killing all but one. The one returns with re-enforcements the next day and slaughters Ichisuke, his parents and whoever else happened to be nearby.
Possibly the most telling moment in Killing is when Yu comes to tell Monkunoshin of Sawamura’s fight with the bandits. The fight itself occurs off-screen, all we see is Yu rushing in, barely able to catch her breath well enough to report his victory. Her eyes are wide in excitement and she grins widely as she talks about the killings. Monokunshin offers no response to her enthusiasm, only a pained, regretful expression.
The idea that violence begets violence, that revenge is a cycle, is not a new or particularly insightful observation. It represents only a surface-level understanding of how violence functions. Killing goes far deeper. It brings out the violence in sex, and makes horrifyingly clear the difference between that and sexual violence. It shows the way in which a fetishization of violence draws us towards destruction. How wishing it upon our enemies detracts from our own humanity. How our fear of it, projected unfairly on to others, calls it into existence. More than anything else, as the fighting gradually breaks the bodies, minds and bonds of each central character, it shows the way in which violence will naturally resolve itself towards zero.
The final shot of Killing is a scream into an empty sky.
Ross McIndoe is a freelance writer currently living in Glasgow alongside two small turtles and one small lady. He writes about most aspects of popular culture for publications like The Skinny, Bright Wall/Dark Room and Film School Rejects. He can be found on Twitter @OneBigWiggle.
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