Shinya Tsukamoto made his name on cyberpunk. His films Tetsuo: Iron Man and Body Hammer are bona fide cult classics, with the first even shot in grimy 16mm. They’re wildly original and wilfully unconventional, abandoning cinematic conventions both broad and specifically Japanese.
Tsukamoto’s latest film Killing strips the filmmaker back somewhat to arguably Japanese cinema’s defining genre (the equivalent of American Westerns), the samurai film. Tsukamoto brings his familiar frenzied and expressionistic handheld camerawork to bear on this new genre, and it works well to ground the audience in what's ultimately an intimate character drama. Killing is a small-scale movie, and not just because it eschews the grandiosity that characterises many samurai movies. Despite the odd small crowd or incidental figure, the majority of the film plays out between just four characters.
Mokunoshin (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a young and fairly inexperienced ronin living a peaceful life on a farm - so peaceful, he’s never killed a man before, and feels a little self-conscious about it. He spends his days sparring with energetic wannabe Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda) and engaging in a tentative, subtly kinky relationship with Yu (Yu Aoi). But when older samurai Sawamura (Tsukamoto himself) arrives on the scene searching for men to fight for the Shogun in a fast-brewing civil war - followed shortly thereafter by a shift-looking gang of outlaws - Mokunoshin's life is forever changed.
Tsukamoto uses his intimate character piece to deconstruct many ideas central to the samurai genre. Notions of honour and courage are called into question in a variety of ways. Is it worth going to war if your absence will ruin your family? At what point does killing for honour become killing for pleasure or obsession? And what's the personal cost of taking a life? These aren't new questions, but Tsukamoto drills down into them with laser precision.
Indeed, honour - specifically, the toxic brand of honour associated with killing - is presented here as almost a palpable force weighing on its characters. The three men of the story are all desperate to prove their worth, as warriors and as men, yet the yardstick by which they measure that worth is fundamentally terrible. This warrior mentality - a programmed-in, irrational drive to beat everyone else, to avoid feeling shame as a man - sucks in the ostensibly wise just as it does the foolish. These men get into violent altercations without even thinking, so obsessed are they with being the better warrior. It'd be machismo if it wasn't all so emotionally restrained.
Inevitably, these issues and conflicts come to a head in the film's self-destructively delirious third act. The characters chase each other around a forest that feels like a chaotic mind palace, having lost all reason and objectivity. When blood is finally spilled, it comes not in spurts or the traditional samurai-film geyser, but as a haze, engulfing the characters and even the very sunlight. Tsukamoto isn't rewriting any thematic books here, but he's doing so in a way that boils his ideas down to their rawest and most basic parts.
As the credits roll, what we're left with is an image of cold, thoughtless murder - and a bloodcurdling cry of grief and despair. But it's the grief of having lost a loved one not to death, but to the moral precipice of having taken a life. In Killing, the only thing worse than being killed is becoming a killer yourself. It's a message counter to many a samurai myth - and a movie counter to many a samurai film.