Killing (斬、, Shinya Tsukamoto, 2018)

Killing posterOppressed peasantry abandoned by their lords and under threat of violence have only ronin to turn to – it’s a familiar, some might say even the archetypal, jidaigeki story. Forever the iconoclast, Shinya Tsukamoto makes his first foray into the world of the samurai, Killing (斬、, Zan,), in typically contrary fashion, turning the classic formula on its head as samurai “justice” brings only more chaos, blood, and terror to the otherwise peaceful fields of ordinary farmers in Bakumatsu-era Japan.

In return for food and lodging, Mokunoshin (Sosuke Ikematsu), a young masterless samurai, has been living alongside a village of kindly farmers who, while deferent to his status, are grateful to have him around because they are desperately short of hands. In addition to helping out with farm work, he’s also been sharing his sword skills with local boy Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda) who has developed delusions of grandeur that he might one day be allowed to hold a sword of his own. Ichinosuke’s sister Yu (Yu Aoi), meanwhile, has become fond of the handsome samurai but is conflicted by his corruption of her brother with “samurai” values he can never hope to aspire to while she also must know that whatever she might feel nothing good can come of it because a samurai will not marry a farmer’s daughter.

The problems begin when twin threats descend on the village – first the appearance of cooler than ice ronin Sawamura (Shinya Tsukamoto) who wants to recruit Mokunoshin for his mission to support the rule of the Shogun in Edo and Kyoto, and the second a group of bandits hovering menacingly on the horizon but as yet doing no real harm. A pragmatist at heart, Mokunoshin prefers diplomacy to action and so he talks to the bandits and rates them as minimally dangerous as long as they’re treated fairly. Unfortunately, fairness is not what they get from hotheaded Ichisuke whose small conflict with them soon sparks into a conflagration when Sawamura starts wielding the sword of justice and doing it imperfectly, bringing yet more chaos down on all their heads.

Violence spreads like a virus contracted by the sword. A victim of his ideology, Sawamura sees his blade as his whole being and the embodiment of his right to act with honour and authority. He thinks the answer is to stamp out the bandits, whereas Mokunoshin knows there are always more than it first seems and to strike at them simply means there will never be an end to the petty tit for tat reprisals. His solution is to let it lie, but to Sawamura that simply looks like cowardice and dereliction of duty.

Despite the prevailing ideology of the world in which he lives, Mokunoshin is opposed to the idea of killing yet if pressed his reasoning is less humanistic pacifism than personal discomfort. Mokunoshin may be a samurai and a fine swordsman, but he has never killed and it seems is afraid to do so. He sees those around him whom he has come to love endangered but cannot act, refusing to raise his sword while the bandits do as they please with none of the existential confusion which cripples Mokunoshin’s ability to serve his own ideals. Rather than insist on an end to the rule of the sword, Mokunoshin resents himself for wishing he could kill as easily as Sawamura and be like the other men of his age.

Yu meanwhile looks on from the sidelines as the samurai code of violence tears her world apart and finally infects her too as she finds herself, far from pleading with him not to die as a substitute for asking him not to leave, insisting that Mokunoshin be the one to fix the mess he made by infecting her brother with a samurai’s lust for glory. Sawamura, meanwhile, becomes fixated on the notion of fixing Mokunoshin through a duel to death in which it is kill or be killed. He is prepared to die for his ideal and hopes that Mokunoshin will in the end choose his life over his soul and become the prized warrior for the Shogun that he knows he is destined to be.

Opening in flames as if to imply the sword is a weapon forged in hell, Killing centres itself not so much on the act but on its repercussions. The bandits too are a product of the inequalities of their times, and if they visually resemble the ragged soldiers of Fires on the Plain it is probably no accident. The code of violence spreads from one generation to the next with inexorable inevitability. Ending in a wail of despair, Killing finds little cause for hope in its relentlessly bleak conclusion which sees no release from the meaningless cycle of violence while humanity refuses to reject the cruel and oppressive social codes which fuel its existence.


Killing was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tears for You (涙そうそう, Nobuhiro Doi, 2006)

tears-for-youComing in at the end of the “pure love” boom, Nobuhiro Doi’s second feature, Tears for You (涙そうそう, Nada So So) is presumably named to tie in with his smash hit debut Be With You, and continues in the same general vein but with a much less satisfying melodrama at its core. A complicated love story centring on a pair of orphaned step-siblings, Tears for You edges into some difficult, perhaps unpalatable, territory but neatly skirts around it with a childish innocence intended to enhance its romantic credentials. Starring the jun-ai icon Masami Nasagawa, the tragic heroine at the centre of Crying Out Love in the Center of the World, alongside the then up and coming leading man Satoshi Tsumabuki, Tears for You is never quite as heartrending as it would like to be but does its best to wring its sorrowful narrative for all of its inherent tragedy.

21yr old Yota (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is a young man with big dreams but he’s put lots of them on hold in order to take care of his younger step-sister, Kaoru (Masami Nagasawa), who has only him to depend on. Yota’s mother married Kaoru’s father when both the children were small but her new husband soon ran off leaving his daughter behind. The three of them continued as a tightly knit family until Yota’s mother became ill and passed away, making Yota promise to take care of Kaoru no matter what even whilst on her deathbed. The two then moved back to an Okinawan island to live with Yota’s grandmother until Yota came back to Naha for high school. Kaoru is now about to make that same journey but the siblings’ happy reunion also provokes a number of questions about the nature of their relationship and the course each of their lives will take in the future.

This being a “pure love” movie, tragedy is coming though Tears for You does its best to disguise where it’s coming from even if the eventual outcome is quite obviously signposted. The original barrier between Kaoru and Yota is raised by their nature as accidental siblings, not related by blood but raised alongside each other with a familial bond stronger than that of just childhood friends. This, of course, becomes a problem as they grow older and begin to find it difficult to draw the line between their familial love and a possibly romantic one which would allow their family of two to continue forever.

Yota, the self sacrificing older brother has indeed become everything to Kaoru – a brother, father, and friend all in one. Dropping out of high school early, Yota has been sending a pay check home since the age of sixteen, putting his own future to one side in order to provide for Kaoru. Determined that Kaoru should prosper and escape their lowly, poverty stricken island existence through getting to university and into a middle class profession, Yota has been working three different jobs. When it looks as if he’s about to be able to realise his own dream of opening a restaurant, it all comes crashing down around his ears as he realises he’s been duped by a con artist and is now on the hook to a gang of loansharks.

In addition to adding to his financial burdens, causing him embarrassment, and further deepening his worry about providing for Kaoru, the situation also creates instability in his romantic life when the father of his longterm medical student girlfriend finds out about his predicament and offers to help – but only at a price. Keiko (Isao Hashizume), he reminds him, is a middle class girl on track to take over her father’s clinic. Yota is a poor boy with limited expectations. The implications are clear and already known to Yota who has internalised a degree of shame over his lowly origins and lack of education which he overcomes through hard work and enthusiasm. Keiko is not the sort to worry about a petty class difference even if her father is, but his words get to Yota who has always felt Keiko is too good for him. She does, however, care slightly about Yota’s ongoing and complicated relationship with his younger sister whom, she fears, will always eclipse any other woman in his life.

As in all pure love stories, love is an impossibility, surrounded by unassailable walls of culture and fate. Though there is no blood relation between Yota and Kaoru, their familial circumstances make romantic love a taboo which leads the film into a rather odd corner in which the familial side of their relationship is the one which gains the upper hand as the love of a brother and sister eclipses that of a tragic missed opportunity. As such the nature of the heartrending conclusion does not reach the melodramatic heights of other genre hits, even if it adheres to the form in maintaining the “purity” of the love through the final impossibility of its realisation. Doi employs many of the same techniques he used so well in Be With You, artfully shifting between past and present and making the most of repeated motifs to bring home the circularity of the relationship between the pair of tragic lovers but never achieves the same kind of emotional depth. Nevertheless, Tears for You is a suitably melancholy weepy anchored by strong performances from its two leads which does ultimately prove moving even if not quite reaching the degree of melodrama implied by the title.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And here’s the original song, Nada Sou Sou, in its cover version by Rimi Natsukawa which spawned a mini industry of its own encompassing two TV dramas and this standalone film (English translation):