Pros: Works as both a straight-up samurai film and as a parody of the genre
Cons: A little difficult to get a grip on the story; nothing major
Throughout much of Kihachi Okamoto’s 1968 samurai film Kill!, the main character of Genta, a former samurai who’s become disillusioned with that life and taken on the lifestyle of a vagrant, is described as being “strange.” In many ways, the film itself could be also categorized as such: it’s a film that very much is a spoof of the entire Japanese swordplay genre, seeming almost like the samurai film remake of a spaghetti western based on a samurai film. Yet through all the playfulness and obvious jabs Okamoto’s film takes at classics like The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo (the script here actually was based on the same source material as Akira Kurosawa’s 1962 film Sanjuro), Kill! is very a satisfying samurai picture in its own right, having a ton of rather violent action, an enthralling, complicated storyline, and some strong performances at its center. Though it’s not as well known as other entries in the genre, this one would be highly enjoyable for viewers who enjoy Japanese period action dramas.
Taking place in 1830’s Japan, the film has many ideas swirling around within its basic framework of being a story about the relationship between the vagrant Genta and a farmer turned would-be samurai named Hanji. After meeting one another on the road, the two main characters find themselves in the middle of the typical samurai film squabble between opposing rulers. After assassinating a local chancellor, a group of seven rebel samurai hold up in a mountain fort, pursued by both a gang of men attempting to bring them to justice, and by their own superior who turns his back on them following their murderous actions. Genta and Hanji are forced to choose (and switch) sides during the course of the film, having to decide if they’re really after wealth and status through their involvement or simply trying to ensure that the morally right side of the conflict emerges victorious.
Tatsuya Nakadai, who previously had appeared in director Okamoto’s 1965 Sword of Doom as the demon-like main character, here plays an entirely different role. Nakadai’s Genta comes across alternately as either an apparently oblivious buffoon (who may have an insight into the situation that few others in the story do), or as a positively noble swordsman fighting for justice (some of the best, most rousing moments in the film occur when Genta really gets to show his stuff in swordplay). Since the character changes so much throughout the course of the film, it’s often difficult to really nail down Genta’s true motivations and mindset, though things become somewhat more clear as the film moves along. It was interesting for me to see Nakadai in a role that was much less serious than the parts I’ve seen him play in other films. In films like the aforementioned Sword of Doom, Samurai Rebellion and Hiroshi Teshigahara’s excellent The Face of Another, Nakadai was all business: respectable, and dead serious, but in Kill!, he’s given the chance to play a more humorous, lowlife character. His facial expressions and mannerisms throughout the film are just wonderful, making Genta an extremely compelling, likable character, even if he sometimes seems rather dim-witted.
In the other main role, we have Etsushi Takahaski in one of his first films. Takahashi’s character also flip-flops throughout the film (perhaps, then, poking fun at the typical samurai film genre story), but it’s ultimately his friendship with Genta that determines his course of action during the story’s climactic moments. In ways, Takahashi’s Hanji is the more obviously funny character; he’s given plenty of moments of physical comedy that accentuate the differences between his “country bumpkin” character and the upper-class samurai he idolizes. Smaller roles in the film are filled by a veritable “who’s who” of Japanese genre film stars of the 1960s – many of these actors (including Akira Kubo and Hideyo Amamoto) appeared in various Japanese sci-fi pictures of the Godzilla variety, while I instantly recognized Eijiro Tono (who has an enjoyable, rather substantial and important role as a perpetually lazy clan leader) from films like 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora! Shin Kishida has another key supporting role as the honorable leader of one group attempting to massacre the seven rebels who’s torn between doing what is right and getting a much-needed payday out of the operation, and Shigeru Koyama plays the downright despicable main villain of the piece, who ordered the original assassination, then turned his back on the rebel samurai.
Written by the director along with Shugoro Yomamoto and Akira Murao, Kill! seems quite complicated at times in the way the story develops (a situation that’s not entirely helped by the fact that the editing scheme for this film is unconventional and jarring at times). Though it’s not nearly as dense as the story in a film like Samurai Spy (which was a bit of a nightmare to understand), it did take me some time to really settle in and get a grasp on what was going on in the story here. Once a viewer does get settled, then he can really appreciate the ways in which the writing team skewer the traditions of the samurai film genre. At various times in the picture, characters point out that samurai aren’t the ultimate incarnations of nobility that they’re often positioned as in this genre, this usually after some form of dishonorable behavior. Kill! has plenty of quirkiness to it with a number of rather outlandish sequences: at one point, Genta convinces an enemy that he’s being pursued by a group of horsemen by banging coconuts together to simulate an approaching brigade (could this be where the Monty Python gang stole the idea used in their Holy Grail film?). One Yakuza underling’s overlong (and overblown) introduction speech pokes fun at the rigidness of dozens period crime films, and I also rather enjoyed the scene where Hanji, upon visiting a brothel (in a scene that’s downright rowdy with slapstick humor, rapid-fire edits, and blaring music), declares that he desires a more homely girl who “smells like the earth.” The music score by Masaru Sato heightens the sense of parody going on by including Ventures-style rock music (including a straight-up surf rock main title) and various musical motifs that mimic Morricone’s music for the various Sergio Leone westerns.
Typically, after a more amusing moment depicting the character’s somewhat outlandish behavior however, Okamoto unleashes some downright brutal action sequences. Ultimately, it’s this tendency that makes Kill! work as both a parody and as a straight-faced picture. Battle scenes in this film are quite exciting and frequently pretty bloody for 1968. There’s nothing here that’s quite on the grandiose scale of something like The Seven Samurai, yet Okamoto’s film holds up nicely as a more compact genre effort, being more about hard-fought squabbles and skirmishes rather than all-out warfare. The locations used in the film are pretty stunning (particularly those surrounding the mountainside fort where the rebels hold up), and Rokuro Nishigaki’s black and white photography capably captures both the actors and the action quite well. This film certainly is nice to look at, but maybe not as flashy as other Japanese films of its day; that said, there are some really stylish moments, including a ballet-like death scene taking place in a hellish, barren countryside, and a great scene where, as the rebels begin to quarrel amongst themselves under the pressure of the situation they’re in, smoke inexplicably billows up around them, symbolizing the building turmoil in the group.
After a big-time climax, Kill! brings itself full circle, ending in much the same way it began. At nearly two hours in length, the picture sometimes seems a bit slow, but in the bigger scheme of things, I think it’s well-constructed and fun. In much the same way that an enjoyable spaghetti western like the original Django doesn’t really hold up when compared directly to a Leone epic, most viewers probably wouldn’t confuse Kill! with anything made by the established masters of the samurai film i.e. Kurosawa. Still, as a sort of “b-movie” entry in the samurai genre, this one has more than enough to keep a viewer entertained. Recommended.
Released by the Criterion Collection as part of the Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics box set, Kill! features a very nice looking, widescreen print of the film in Japanese with English subtitles. Aside from an essay about the film though, there are no extras save a pair of theatrical trailers.
6/10 : Raucous, fairly violent swordplay scenes with some graphic moments (an arm hacked off, blood splatter).
1/10 : Some threatening dialogues and minor adult content; no profanity and nothing major.
2/10 : “A brothel? Nice!” but most of the sexual conduct is left offscreen.
5/10 : A little more strange than the typical samurai flick, but not wild enough to really seem definitively “out there.”
“… See what’s wrong with samurai?”
Trailer can be viewed .