Shin'ya Tsukamoto's Killing is a lean and mean—and not a little funny—chanbara with the spartan, DIY mise en scène common to this great gonzo director who shoots, edits, writes, and stars in the film. It spends its fleet runtime with a single idea in mind: to expose and break the conventions of the genre, pushing them to extremity. Set vaguely in the 19th century, it opens in a small village with a friendly masterless samurai, Mokunoshin Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu), living among the farmers and sparring with a local youth in a tranquility so bare that the main tension is the unfulfilled sexual desire between the swordsman and a local farmer’s daughter (Yu Aoi)—one of the first signs of Tsukamoto’s wry counter of expectations, unafraid to show the kind ronin furiously masturbating each night. Into this bare setting comes another masterless samurai, the older Jirozaemon Sawamura (Tsukamoto), who defeats a man in a duel, sees Tsuzuki sparring, and unexpectedly invites him and his young protege to Edo for an ambiguous mission. In his solitary appearance and shabby kimono, Sawamura’s proposition hardly seems plausible, but no matter—when a gang of ruffians show up outside the town it’s time to use all their skills to protect the farmers.
Or so you’d think—for Tsukamoto rapidly deflates this expectation, showing Tsuzuki as a samurai afraid to kill. Sawamura instead takes care of business, the young ronin faints and further postpones the mission to Edo, and the film elides two major fights from Tsuzuki’s view and ours. This all eventually brings Tsuzuki into conflict with Sawamura over the young ronin's trepidation to use his sword, a fear which is representative of the whole film’s slyly stunted evolution. This tension between youth and master wonderfully devolves into a primal climb up a forest mountain, Tsuzuki fleeing, Sawamura chasing him, and the young woman chasing them both, all injured, bleeding and desperate for satisfaction in ways none could articulate and perhaps the story neither—they simply long for culmination after being held in the film’s odd, abstracted limbo of a genre film. Killing is too quick and tenacious to revel in much detail, for the trappings of the period and the extent of the story world are but a skin to a cinematic animal wholly concerned with undercutting the heroism that Tsukamoto sees as ingrained in samurai cinema. Those coming for a conventional genre film might be disappointed, but those who revel in a fierce gesture of pure cinema will leave sated.
At the premiere of his film at the Toronto International Film Festival we spoke with Shin'ya Tsukamoto about his first memories of samurai films, his approach towards action, and his love for doing everything himself.
NOTEBOOK: What is your first memory of watching a samurai film as a child?
SHIN’YA TSUKAMOTO: Well...not exactly as a kid, but in my late teens, I watched the Zatoichi TV series, and it was very artistic, and not like any other samurai film. They left a very different impression than the other films. Actually, I do remember the first samurai film I watched: Kon Ichikawa’s Matatabi [The Wanderers, 1971], about three guys from the ‘70s going to the Edo period.
NOTEBOOK: I don't know that one. They travel through time?
TSUKAMOTO: It’s not exactly about physically time traveling, but it’s more the emotion that they go through in the film. Those actors back in the 1970s, they all suddenly look like samurai and act like samurai, but they still have the expression and the atmosphere of the 1970s.
NOTEBOOK: This is your second period film after Fires on the Plain, which treated its Second World War setting with a very stripped down approach. Killing similarly tackles the samurai film with very spartan means: one farmhouse, a few kimonos, a few swords—now it’s a samurai film. Do you see this film in the genre of samurai film or is it something else?
TSUKAMOTO: I’m not sure if there’s a comparison with Fires on the Plain, because that’s based on an original novel and I was quite specific about the period and the time. For this film, Killing, I was borrowing the frame of the samurai or chanbara film, but the message that I wanted to deliver through the film and the character was more the feeling he is having right now. So it’s not exactly a genre film, but I used the formula to deliver the message.
NOTEBOOK: You play an intriguing character in the story, that of an ambiguous elder samurai. You show up, you tell our hero you have a mission, you’re gathering men...yet you are by yourself, your kimono is shabby. Maybe he’s telling the truth and maybe he’s a liar. How do you see your character?
TSUKAMOTO: He must be telling the truth, based on the script [laughs]. The role Sawamura has is more easily accepted by the audience, because normally that kind of character is written as a hero in a samurai film: a strong guy who is set against the gangs, and he literally just kills everyone. So for the audience, maybe he can be a hero easily, but through the plot of this film I wanted both the audience and the characters surrounding him to start to question whether Sawamura is a good guy or a bad guy.
NOTEBOOK: I found this quality that you describe throughout the film: questioning expectation and convention. Would you say this is the mission of this film—to invite the audience in to make assumptions, and then challenge them by doing something different?
TSUKAMOTO: My intention was not just to subvert expectation, but more to betray the audience’s expectation. My purpose, through the message, was so that they could think about this afterwards.
NOTEBOOK: In a way, do you view this film as a correction or as a criticism of other genre films?
TSUKAMOTO: I quite like samurai films generally, so it’s not really correcting, but it’s more thinking about samurai and how their mission is literally to kill people. In going back to the root of the samurai, I question whether they’re a good thing. And they may not be. So that’s the whole concept of the film that I came up with.
NOTEBOOK: The film questions the act of killing, but also it’s a violent film. And you’re definitely a filmmaker who has no fear of showing violence on screen. But also this movie is very careful when it wants to show things: you’re character goes off and fights and kills, and we don’t see it. But then later, we see much violence. I’m curious to know how you conceptualized the action and the violence in the film.
TSUKAMOTO: I literally wanted to synchronize the audience’s feeling with the characters who are not samurai. The young boy and the main character, they don’t know how scary it is to face real life. And by hiding those sequences, the realistic images, the audience and the young characters can still have a hope for the ending. But they don’t understand how horrible it is. By doing this, I could bring up the big, violent drama towards the end, so that finally the audiences and characters know exactly how it is—how it is cruel to face the reality.
NOTEBOOK: Some movies about swordsmen take a step back and show the action very carefully, so you appreciate it at a distance. But, except for the opening duel, you’re very close, and everything is very quick. The energy is very high and almost chaotic. I’m wondering about this difference in style, the immersive style versus the distant style in showing action.
TSUKAMOTO: Simply speaking, in many cases when people try to shoot a samurai film, they try to stand back with the camera so they can capture the beauty of the choreography, and the samurai itself—that’s how it’s been characterized. I’m not denying this style, I still think it’s beautiful, but this time through the film Killing I wanted to focus more on the insanity—and the insanity of reality. Instead of a backing-off style, a little away from what’s happening, in this way I could stay focused on what’s really happening.
NOTEBOOK: You serve as your own cinematographer and your own editor. How do you go about visualizing a scene like this film’s violent bloodbath in the cave?
TSUKAMOTO: Before going to the shoot, I writes all the storyboards and share it with all of the crew. That way, everyone understands what picture exactly they’re shooting, so that I has no problem doing it on the set.
NOTEBOOK: It’s all storyboarded? I always assumed you worked more spontaneously, because your films often move so quickly, and with such crazed energy—they often feel very in-the-moment.
TSUKAMOTO: I always draw a very specific thing, so that I can can bring up that emotion in the moment and bring it to the screen.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of emotion—and earlier you mentioned insanity in relation to the movie—how did you worked with your two actors in the final sequence, climbing up the mountain which requires so much intensity and anguish and very little drama in the sense of dialogue: just bodies, emotion and landscape.
TSUKAMOTO: For that last scene, I didn’t really direct them. They understood it all from the script. Of course, there was a rehearsal before going to the shooting—but just once. And the two actors, they were very understanding.
NOTEBOOK: Coming to the ending of your film, do you see it as inevitable in a film like this that a man who doesn’t want to kill must always kill? That there’s no way to escape it, it’s always going to happen? In a way there’s no choice for Tsuzuki—or he thinks he’s making a choice but it’s a choice he was fated to make.
TSUKAMOTO: The young ronin was forced to choose the path he is taking. And it’s overlapping with today’s world, where for teenagers it seems like they have choices, but it’s more that they’re forced to choose and they don’t realize it. That’s super scary—and that’s the message that I wanted to put in the ending.
NOTEBOOK: And how does desire, sexual desire, playing in to that pressure? Because that’s definitely a strong part of Tsuzuki’s character and his decision, or lack of decision—a desire he can’t have consummate.
TSUKAMOTO: As we talked about earlier, I often felt that one of the things other samurai films all have in common is the beauty of being a samurai, and that most of the time, it’s being shown how beautiful their existence is. But this time I didn’t want to do that, I just wanted to show the samurai very specifically. Tsuzuki’s sexuality is something everyone has, the desire he wants to explore sexually—so I thought this it would be an easy way for the young audience to catch up. Back in the samurai era, of course, young people had these sexual feelings.
NOTEBOOK: On a more general note, I’m curious to know if after going through production of Martin Scorsese’s Silence, in which you acted, you feel like your perspective on filmmaking changed at all?
TSUKAMOTO: In a good way, there’s been no big thing to change to my perspective. But first of all, I found that Scorsese was really taking good care of the actors and paying a lot of respect to them, and I thought maybe he would do that—I expected it. But in a very precious way I could feel it and see it, which was, I thought, very respectable. And another thing is that it’s a big-budget film, not like the small crew that I’m always working with, but I also found that although there are large numbers of people working on the production, the key persons are always the same, and there’s a small number of people taking all the controls. So I was encouraged in my working with my small group, which is good enough.
NOTEBOOK: You do many things on your films, I’m wondering which job you enjoy the most?
TSUKAMOTO: I don’t consider myself as a director: I don’t sit at the director’s chair, I don’t even have one! [laughs] And I do pretty much everything on my own—which is what filmmaking is for me. I used to shoot film with 8mm and did everything by myself, and since then I have had the chance to do more, and have enjoyed every single bit of it.