Interview. We spoke with Shinya Tsukamoto, creator of Japanese swashbucklers, whose latest film, ‘Killing,’ stunned critics at the Venice Film Festival.

The meaning of killing: Behind Shinya Tsukamoto’s new film

Killing (Zan in Japanese), the highly anticipated new film by Shinya Tsukamoto, left the critics and cinephiles (like me) of Venice and the Lido witness to the Golden Lion of their dreams in this absolutely atypical chambara (the Japanese genre of swashbuckling movies), perfectly balanced between Tsukamoto’s well-known hyperkinetic and disturbing style with a surprising classical attitude. It is made of rhythms and tensions that seem to come directly from unforgettable masterpieces like Seven Samurai or Rashomon.

Mokunoshin is a young ronin, a samurai with no lords to serve, and he’s as talented in the use of sword as he is completely unable to kill anyone. The encounter with Sawamura (Tsukamoto), who helps him against a crew of bandits teaching him the way of violence, will change his destiny, turning it toward a path of blood.

(The following interview was possible thanks to the precious mediation of Maria Novielli from Venice University Ca’ Foscari, who, with her competence and kindness, was for us, much more than a translator, but a real active part of this exchange.)

Zan seems to be your first movie that explicitly declares classical cinematografic influences, such as Rashomon or Seven Samurai. Do you think something changed in your approach to cinema?

Not exactly. What’s really changed over the years is my specific area of interest. My main theme in my older movies was the claustrophobic relationship between humans and the city, and it was my very exclusive “comfort zone,” because I was the only director moving in that direction. And since I was the only one doing those kind of movies, the only possible reference was my own cinema itself, both for me, while I was shooting, and for all those brave souls who tried to understand it.

But cities are not isolated. They are inserted in a wider environment, the world, that surrounds them like the ocean surrounds the islands, and I felt it was time for me and my cinema to explore that wilderness, the existence outside the city borders. This is a very “crowded” place, because many directors, today as in the past, focused their attention on these themes, and it’s normal in this situation to find overlaps or unexpected mutual influences or similarities. Some influences operate in an unconscious way, even if we don’t recognize them. The character of Sawamura, for example, embodies the archetype of the teacher who’ll give his own life just to transmit an essential lesson to his pupil. Now, this is not a theme coming from my cinema, sure, but it was very meaningful for one of the directors I love the best, Kurosawa, for example, and it’s absolutely possible that I felt his influence, even if I wasn’t conscious of it.

Killing starts in fire, the same destructive fire that closed Nobi. Is this a sign of continuity?

There are close relationships between the two movies. For example, those ethical questions that the main character asks himself in Killing are the same ones that Nobi asks in a collective form. I only tried to reduce the extension, and move the point of view from the macroscopic dimension of collective history to the microscopic one of individual histories. The point is that the main inner question that obsesses Mokunoshin (“What does it mean? What’s the meaning of killing? What is it useful for?”) is the “missing question” of Nobi, that which those soldiers stopped asking themselves. When humans stop seeking the answer to that question, every boundary is broken. The soldiers in Nobi forgot the question and they stopped looking for the answer, so they lost the meaning of life and became the cannibal monsters they are now. In Killing, things are not already lost. Someone is still trying to find the meaning of death and, therefore, the true value of life. If the question still exists there’s a chance left to give it a different answer, avoiding violence, and that’s the main theme of my movie.

In the midst of so much violence, the delicate image of ladybugs returns several times. The purpose is clearly metaphorical.

Ladybugs are connected with the samurai way. If they want to fly, these small insects must ascend the entire trunk because they can fly only when they reach the top of the tree. This is also true for the fate of the samurai, driven by an immense ambition and a sense of superhuman honor, to attempt the arduous ascent of the ranks of their social condition. Many of them will fall during the ascent, like ladybugs that lose their grip on the trunk. Others will die along the way. But the few who reach the top will take flight and reach the sky.

At the end of the movie the main character, Mokunoshin, upset by the murder he just committed, wounded and dirty, moves like a ghost through a forest that becomes darker and darker. The image is very similar to the one he dreamed in an earlier nightmare.

In my script, Mokunoshin dreams about the surviving villain, the one that Sawamura didn’t kill, whom he fears will summon his companions to take revenge. But I like your interpretation, and what you said—that he dreams himself becoming these monstrous bandits—actually works. The visual similarity between the two is justified from the moral point of view, because in the very moment in which Mokunoshin becomes a killer he loses his innocence. He forgets the meaning of that question “Of what use is killing?” which once marked the difference between him and the cruel bandits. Now he’s exactly like them. Let’s say that he dreamed of the bandits, as I thought, but that in a certain sense he was dreaming of himself, as you said.

You put in a lot of work as an actor to find the right character for your Sawamura. I see in him a composure and solemnity I have never seen before.

Basically I tried to find the right balance between kindness and strength. This character interacts with other people with apparent kindness and mildness, but he hides inside himself a terrible strength, stronger than any human mercy. He’s not the positive character he pretends to be because he brings violence, he teaches violence, and he uses violence to solve issues, without caring about the consequences that these might have on other people. So I tried to express this duality through a serious and concentrated meekness, just a bit influenced by the dark inner force he carries inside.

Once more you shot the film with a digital camera. Can we say digital is the now primary, perhaps the only, medium through which you express your new aesthetic?

I’ll be honest: I don’t give any specific stylistic or aesthetic value to digital mediums. They’re just cheap. The Kaiju Theater, which produces my movies, is really small, and every way to save money is welcome. However, digital media have some remarkable advantages, from the stylistic point of view, because cheapness means for me the chance to shoot a lot of material without increasing costs. You can shoot for long periods of time, capturing unexpected events, or following the actors when they’re not acting, as I did in Kotoko, catching their natural expressions. And you can shoot every scene many times without caring about increasing costs. That helps a lot in reducing the psychological pressure in actors. In these more relaxed conditions, performances are more natural and fluid, closer to reality and less “acted.”

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