A little existential angst is understandable in a ronin (masterless samuai), but Mokunoshin Tsuzuki takes it to a whole new level. He has skills, but his hesitancy to take life will be interpreted as a weakness in cinematic madman Shinya Tsukamoto’s lean, minimalist samurai drama, Killing, which screens during the 2020 Boston Festival of Films from Japan.
Tsuzuki has been marking time as a seasonal laborer in a remote agricultural village and serving as its unofficial protector. He likes his hosts, particularly the sweet-tempered Yu and trains hard with her amiable brother Ichisuke, but he realizes he must eventually restart his career as a swordsman. Fate seems to intervene when Jirozaemon Sawamura passes through the village, recruiting ronin to fight on behalf of the Shogun, not unlike Takashi Shimura in the opening scenes of Seven Samurai. He will take Tsuzuki as a member of the core group and also Ichisuke as a reserve, neither of which sits well with Yu.
To make matters worse, a band of suspicious ruffians starts camping nearby. Yu fears they will pillage the village once the ronin move on, but Tsuzuki is convinced they are merely rowdy and a little rough around the edges. He holds fast to that hope, even after they badly thrash poor Ichisuke. However, that will be more than enough to convince Sawamura otherwise.
Arguably, both Tsuzuki and Sawamura are both partially right. The former correctly predicts violence has a tendency to beget violence, but as they say in Texas (with Sawamura concurring), some of these characters just need killing. Regardless, Tsukamoto’s Killing is a rather elegant meditation on the nature of violence that actually fits the bushido spirit quite well. Real trained martial artists always try avoid fighting outside of a controlled tournament setting, unless it is absolutely necessary. It is not just because their skills are so deadly (though that may be true). It is more about inner discipline and walking the humble path.
In any event, this could well be Tsukamoto’s best performance yet in one of his own films, playing Sawamura with the gravity of black hole. He is massively steely, with hubris to match. Frankly, Sosuke Ikematsu’s Tsuzuki is somewhat dull in comparison. However, Yu Aoi is openly vulnerable and acutely compelling as her innocent namesake.
Tsukamoto definitely reminds us in no uncertain terms how hard life was for peasants. Even though there is not a lot of action in Killing per se, it will still satisfy legit Chanbara connoisseurs. Highly recommended for jidaigeki fans and viewers who appreciate slow burning tragedy, Killing screens tonight (2/1) and Saturday (2/15), as part of this year’s Boston Festival of Films from Japan.