July 28, 2016
The Great Killing – Japan, 1964
The Great Killing is a brutal film. It’s also an overly complicated one, containing such a multitude of characters that trying to keep track of them all is practically an effort in futility. The film begins just after an unsuccessful revolt, which many suspect was brought down after a betrayal. In the film’s opening scene, local authorities are tasked with bringing those involved to justice, and if suspects resist arrest, they’re told, it is permissible to kill them. The round-up is shown during the opening credits, and its violence is surpassed by the interrogations that occur subsequently, one of which involves pouring scolding hot water on a prisoner to make him talk. As I said, brutal.
As usually happens in situations like these, authorities make little attempt to distinguish regular people from the conspirators, and innocent people are apprehended for doing nothing more than walking outside to see what the commotion is. In the chaos of the round-up, a young man named Geki Nakajima enters the home of a local samurai named Heishiro Jimbo and asks for refuge. Unaware what is going on just outside his door, Heishiro does not refuse the request, instead asking his wife to look outside and see if anything is afoot. Soon Nakajima and Heishiro are being marched away by government troops, and Heishiro’s wife lies dead in the street. Again, brutal.
Like many other films in the genre, The Great Killing then turns into an introduction of a variety of characters who will eventually make up a team that will make one last stand against the great evil in the film, Lord Sakai. Heishiro is eventually recruited by an enigmatic young woman named Miya; she then introduces him to Tomonojo Hoshino, a family man who openly took part in the rebellion; and later in a Buddhist temple, Miya runs into Sennosuke Kusaka, a slightly psychotic individual who believes he has been selected by a higher power to be the one who will take down Sakai. Eventually, a full team is resembled, much like it is in The Seven Samurai, a task is given, and they set off on what is likely a suicide mission. What separates The Great Killing from other films is the fact that the team, while being on the morally correct side, are not always the most honorable of characters, and this gives the film a level of complexity that other ones lack. For example, in one scene, we witness one of these character commit a truly despicable act; in the next, we are asked to root for him in combat.
It is not surprising that a film like The Great Killing ends in violence and turmoil, and for many viewers, this will be one of the film’s key draws. However, what worked best for me were the film’s calmer moments – the gentle early scene between Heishiro and his wife; the warm conversations involving Heishiro and his fallen samurai friend, Matanishin Asari; the warmth in the scenes featuring Hoshino and his family. Such scenes pulled me in, establishing characters that I empathized with, and in some cases, making what these characters do later on all the more shocking and terrible.
Adding to the film’s frenzied feel is director Eiichi Kudo’s amazing and varied camerawork. During conversations between the film’s more heroic characters, Kudo’s camera is close to the actors, making it seem as if we were standing right next to them as we would were we part of the conversation; during other scenes, the camera steps back, viewing events from a considerable distance and creating the impression that we are on the outside hearing conversations we are not supposed to be privy to. And then there are the film’s action scenes, in which Kudo appears to be operating a hand-held camera and running along with his actors. These scenes have a frantic feel to them, as the camera shakes and Kudo tries to keep up with the action. At times, we seem to see the battle from the perspective of one of Sakai’s foot soldiers; at other times, the perspective we see is that of a villager trying to get out of harm’s way. The technique will be frustrating to some, for it denies the film the focused tragic beauty that usually accompanies scenes in which characters make their last stand. Here, what we see could hardly be described as depicting beauty or something impressive. In fact, what it most conveyed to me was utter desperation, which seemed entirely appropriate.
In the end, The Great Killing is not an easy film to watch. It is unnecessarily convoluted, and at times, its characters appear to be talking to the audience rather than each other, the result of having too much going on and not enough time to convey it naturally. I found myself a bit frustrated by the film’s first half with its persistent introductions of characters and subplots. Still, the second half of the film makes up for that by making the stakes abundantly clear and fully illustrating the depths of the characters involved. I felt for Miya and Heishiro, and I understood his powerful assertion, “This is the world we created.” As the film makes clear, it’s not the world they choose to accept. (on DVD)
*The Great Killing is in Japanese with English subtitles.