By Takashi Oki / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer“Zan” (Killing), Shinya Tsukamoto’s first samurai drama, opened at cinemas last week.
The film, set at the end of the Edo period (1603-1867), examines the essence of violence through a young ronin, or masterless samurai, who agonizes over whether to use his sword to kill.
“Killing” also contains a painful message for today’s youth.
The ronin, Tsuzuki Mokunoshin played by Sosuke Ikematsu, is working for a farmer on the outskirts of Edo, where he becomes involved with a village girl named Yu, played by Yu Aoi.
Their lives are disturbed by the appearance of another ronin, named Sawamura and played by Tsukamoto, who invites Mokunoshin to take part in the upheaval going on in Kyoto.
“Killing,” which is linked to Tsukamoto’s “Fires on the Plain,” depicting Japanese soldiers in extreme circumstances in the Philippines during World War II, was shown in the competition section of the Venice International Film Festival this year.
Instead of powerful iron weapons able to slaughter multitudes of people, “Killing” is set farther back in time and focuses on a single sword.
But like “Fires on the Plain,” at the root of this film is anxiety over the present.
“The end of the Edo period, when there hadn’t been any war for 250 years, resembles the present moment, which has had peace for 70 years,” Tsukamoto said.
The bloody fighting at the end of the Edo period was followed by wars during the Meiji era (1868-1912). This history could hold clues for where Japan is headed.
“There’s a sense that when the whole world is heading toward war, it’s uncool not to join in. I want to stop things before they get to that point,” he said.
Tsukamoto’s goal was to create a movie in which today’s young people could feel they were breathing the same air as in the story, despite it being a period piece.
If they had been alive at the end of the Edo period, could they have unhesitatingly killed another person if ordered to do so?
In the film, Tsukamoto has Ikematsu, a reflection of today’s younger generation, stare at his sword and think about killing another human being.
The film also depicts the villagers who watch over him.
“If a war is presented as justified, the public won’t feel critical of it and will give their support,” Tsukamoto said.
The character of Yu symbolizes the masses. She pressures Mokunoshin to fight a group of rogue ronin that appears in the village, only to see a close relative die in the violence.
“I wanted to stick a blade in the sense that participating in war or violence is cool,” Tsukamoto said.
Tsukamoto made his theatrical debut with 1989’s “Tetsuo: The Iron Man,” in which the main character is a man whose body transforms into metal.
It was a peaceful time when violence was unrealistic, so I could depict it as fantasy,” he said.
However, 70 years after WWII he has come to feel that war is in the air, which changed his attitude.
“Since ‘Fires on the Plain,’ I’ve felt that I’m wasting my time if I’m not showing the gruesome side of violence. I wanted to make something that would make people shudder,” he said.