One doesn’t have to indiscriminately love rogue samurai films to appreciate a well-made entry in the genre, but one does have to be an unabashed Shinya Tsukamoto devotee to find either excitement or pleasure in “Killing.” Less profligately violent than recent works like “Fires on the Plain” or “Kotoko,” the film is a minor entry in the cult director’s hefty oeuvre, set in the 19th century and featuring a skilled lone ronin finding himself unwilling to kill. Most notable for its oddly murky visuals and unimpressive fight sequences, this stripped-down outdoor chamber piece wraps up after 80 minutes and will just as quickly be forgotten.
Reticent ronin Mokunoshin Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu, “The Last Samurai”) helps a village of rice farmers with the harvest. To keep nimble, he uses wooden poles to practice his swordsmanship skills with young Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda), who worships the footloose samurai and dreams of an adventurous life away from the paddies. Ichisuke’s sister Yu (Yu Aoi) is concerned her brother’s enthusiasm will lead to harm, but she’s also attracted to Mokunoshin and would like him to stay in the village.
Traveling older samurai Jirozaemon Sawamura (Tsukamoto) notes Mokunoshin’s skill and recruits him and Ichisuke to journey together to Edo and Kyoto, where warriors are gathering to defend the shogun. On the eve of departure, Mokunoshin suddenly falls ill and a motley gang of outlaws led by Sezaemon Genda (Tatsuya Nakamura) appears threateningly on the village outskirts. Impulsive Ichisuke wanders off and annoys the brutes, who rough him up badly; for Sawamura, this is an insult to his mission and he goes on the attack, escalating the rivalry and panicking Mokunoshin, who sees where this can lead.
Apart from a few scenes of swordplay practice, there’s really only one major fight sequence, which Tsukamoto stages with a peculiar lack of focus. Rapid-fire cutting and unusual angles are accompanied by the sounds of clashing steel and loud whooshes, yet it’s all a whirlwind of confusing motion. At no time can we appreciate the choreographed artistry, nor divine who’s doing what to whom until the end of the sequence, when bodies litter the ground and Mokunoshin, trapped, is forced to watch as Yu is gang-raped.
It’s a crisis moment for the young ronin, who’s used his blade for combat practice but not as a deadly weapon. “I don’t understand how you kill so easily,” he tells Sawamura, whose violent commitment to a sense of honor brooks no such hesitation. The compelling concept of a samurai unwilling to kill certainly isn’t a new one (Kenji Misumi’s “On the Road Forever” is just one example), but Tsukamoto does so little with it or his characters that Mokunoshin’s anguish has no depth. Twice he’s seen attempting to masturbate through his trousers, once with his hand covered in blood: Is the message that he can neither kill nor ejaculate? If it’s an acknowledgment of the concept of “the little death” (“la petite mort”), it’s as empty as the expression itself.
Characters stagger about, grimacing or expressing anguish, accompanied by loud choral chords at key moments that feel too big for such a small movie; “Killing’s” sense of intimacy could have been a strong suit had it been used to develop anything other than the most superficial motivations. All scenes play out in small fields or forests forming an unvariegated green backdrop, dully lit, while the frequent night scenes are so dark they lack visual interest.