Japanese filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto turned to his country's masters for inspiration for his latest work, "Killing," his first samurai movie. But he also emulated the way Martin Scorsese gave free rein to his actors, a technique Tsukamoto learned when he was cast in "Silence" as a Christian martyr.
"Killing," a poetic but brutal story about the horrors of violence, premiered at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year and opens in Japan on Nov. 24. Overseas release dates have not been announced.
"This film is the total antithesis to the heroism depicted in usual samurai films," Tsukamoto, who wrote, directed and edited "Killing," said at a recent preview screening at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Tokyo.
He said he was an admirer of the samurai films he grew up on, including the classics by Akira Kurosawa and Kon Ichikawa. But he wanted to do something different.
A samurai film has signature elements such as choreographed fight scenes. Juxtaposing what's unexpected makes people think, raising questions, Tsukamoto said.
"I wanted to cast doubt," he said, pointing to the assumption that the samurai is a hero. "Is he really the good guy?"
The Scorsese technique of being positive while giving freedom to the actors appeared to work in "Killing."
Yu Aoi, who plays a young farmer in love with the main character, found herself taking a different approach to her acting.
She usually likes to create her character clearly and not sway from it throughout the work. But in "Killing," she allowed herself to go where the film took her, transforming from childlike carefreeness into wanting revenge, and then descending into psychological devastation.
Her love interest is portrayed by Sosuke Ikematsu, 28, who was in "The Last Samurai" as a child. In "Killing," he starts out innocently enough, pursuing the art of sword-fighting like an athlete seeking perfection.
As he becomes recruited for more serious samurai business by an older samurai, played by Tsukamoto himself, the film gradually takes on a gruesome reality, showing the duels for the bloody slicing up of body parts that they are.
"Killing" is in one sense a genre switch from the satirical cyberpunk works like "Tetsuo" that have won Tsukamoto an international cult following since the late 1980s.
But the eerie energy, the dizzying camerawork, the almost painful sensitivity to sound and the purity of his message are trademark Tsukamoto.
The work does not glorify the gore, although the scenes are sensual and mesmerizing. The love story is truncated and pathetic, never descending into sentimentality.
"Killing" is what Tsukamoto called "a scream" — a wake-up call about where the world could be delusively headed.
"Without real images, people can more easily go to war," he said.