Shinya Tsukamoto has rightfully gained cult status as a director, ever since Tetsuo: The Iron Man debuted thirty years ago. His films explore dark, violent subject matter and his approach to filmmaking is wildly unpredictable, Tetsuo itself still being one hell of a trip to this day. On seeing that his latest film, Killing, on the surface appeared to be a somewhat traditional samurai film, I was left tantalisingly thinking to myself “What’s the catch?”.

Killing brings a layer of realism by making the title itself a central focus. Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a young masterless samurai boarding with farmers, spending his days helping with the land, sparring with one of their sons (Ryusei Maeda) and having some sexual tension with their daughter (Yu Aoi). When an older samurai (played by Tsukamoto himself) wishes to recruit both Tsuzuki and the farmers son to travel to Edo and fight for the Emperor, it puts the wheels in motion for Tsuzuki to confront his own fears regarding taking another person’s life.

These opening scenes are economically presented; character and mood is established at a brisk pace, something I was grateful for given it was hardly breaking new ground, yet it does a fine job of presenting a quiet, idyllic life. This is when the trojan horse opens up, as these characters have adopted a fantasy of how they wish the world to be: Tsuzuki maintains an outward air of calm control yet internally is consumed with fear, Aoi wishes for Tsuzuki to be a strong warrior but then fears she will lose him, even Tsukamoto’s sagely, pensive warrior has layers of cruelty and sadism in him.

Over the tight eighty minute runtime the genre is effectively deconstructed before us. Tales of heroism and bloodshed, as portrayed over many decades of filmmaking and centuries more of storytelling, are cast aside to hone in on the psychological damage it imparts on its characters. The experimental style that Tsukamoto has used in the past to accentuate nightmarish visions is put aside for a focused camera (though the use of handheld does on occasion muddy the comprehensibility of the few action scenes), which grounds the film in its more realistic setting, amplifying the impact of its characters’ gradual descent into madness.

The sword itself is made to feel deadly again. The act of a samurai unsheathing is treated as a declaration, that death will soon follow. In an age where body counts soar ever higher in blockbuster cinema and death is largely meaningless, Killing places great weight on this act, reminding us of the terrible toll it can leave on a person’s psyche. Battles are sparse and brief in nature, echoing the fragility of life.

It is encouraging to see a filmmaker continue to challenge himself and his audience after so many years. Killing is a refreshing change for Tsukamoto, while simultaneously feeling like a natural continuation of the style he has developed over the decades.

For more on the Glasgow Film Festival 2019 click here.