With sword in hand, Appellate Judge Dan Mancini dissects this samurai flick.
Our review of Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics: Criterion Collection, published November 1st, 2005, is also available.
"Understand now what samurai are really like?"—Genta
[Editor's Note: This review is part of a full examination of Criterion's Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics boxed set.]
If Kill!'s plot sounds familiar, that's because it's based on Peaceful Days by Shugoro Yamamoto, the novel that was the inspiration for Sanjuro, Akira Kurosawa's sequel of sorts to Yojimbo. Fear not, though, director Kihachi Okamoto's (The Sword of Doom) film is different enough from Kurosawa's that the two make interesting companion pieces without feeling repetitive—they'd make a great double-feature, in fact.
I've never read Yamamoto's book, but I'm guessing that Kill! is a closer adaptation than Sanjuro. Comparing the two films, Kurosawa's penchant for lean, concise narrative shines through, as well as his standard operating procedure of rifling source materials for the elements he finds interesting, jettisoning the rest, and embellishing his adapted script with his own material. Kurosawa's film begins in roughly the middle of Okamoto's, the gang of naïve samurai already holed up and ripe for ambush after having murdered the corrupt official. Kurosawa also, in order to translate Yamamoto's novel into a sequel to his wildly successful Yojimbo, distilled the dual heroes Genta and Hanjiro into his iconic ronin Sanjuro Tsubaki, who doesn't much resemble either of the men in Okamoto's film.
Facts of the Case
Joshu Province, March 1833. Genta (Tatsuya Nakadai, The Sword of Doom) and Hanjiro (Etsushi Takahashi, The Shogun's Samurai)—two dirty, hungry men—meet in a dusty, rapidly deteriorating town, ravaged only two months earlier by a riot of yakuza. Genta has given up the samurai's life by choice; Hanjiro is a farmer masquerading as a samurai. They stumble upon a group of seven headstrong (but none-too-bright) samurai who murder a vassal of the Shogun on behalf of a local boss named Chamberlain Ayuzawa (Shingeru Koyama, Akage). The assassins send Genta to their boss to inform him of the success of their mission. Hanjiro goes to Ayuzawa of his own accord seeking employment, and is told he will be made a samurai if he kills Genta in order to ensure the messenger doesn't gossip.
When Ayuzawa kidnaps the uncle of one of the seven samurai, the men realize their boss may be out to kill them in order to cover up the crime. The samurai head to a nearby boundary fort to hide out, while their friend Shinroku (Yoshio Tsuchiya, Seven Samurai) heads to Edo to alert the Shogunate of the dastardly goings-on in Joshu. Genta takes pity and joins their cause when he realizes they've been betrayed by Shinroku and will be ambushed at the fort. Meanwhile, Hanjiro becomes involved in the plight of a disgraced samurai whose wife has been indentured into prostitution. Unfortunately, the warrior intends to earn the 30 ryo he needs to free his wife by collecting a bounty on the seven samurai…and he'll kill Genta if he must.
Perhaps the most delightful aspect of Kill! is Tatsuya Nakadai's wonderful comic performance. A successful stage actor who made the leap to the silver screen in the '50s, Nakadai is known almost exclusively as a dramatic actor. His earliest roles were heavies, including the itinerant rogues Sanjuro faces off against in the climax of both Yojimbo and Sanjuro. His performance in Kill! is a revelation, proving the actor has genuine—mostly untapped—comic skills. Genta is more wistful and passive than Mifune's Sanjuro. His fallen state, poverty, and disillusionment with the waning Shogunate are more palpable because he lacks Sanjuro's swaggering bravado. Genta is careworn, beaten down by life, and no longer naïve enough to believe in Bushido, but he's not cynical. He views his plight with a kind of wry humor, not taking himself any more seriously than he does the entire samurai class. The one thing he does share with Sanjuro is a sharp, calculating mind forged of experience in battle: He knows the next turn of plot long before the other characters do; he's the smartest guy in the picture.
Okamoto's movie is entertaining not only for its switchblade humor (in one fight sequence, the staging and crisp editing somehow make a severed finger funny), but also for its wit in throwing a dense mélange of chambara clichés at us (feuding local bosses, tea house prostitutes, a farmer longing to rise to the samurai class) while twisting the perspective enough to make it feel fresh. That said, the film works as a rousing action-adventure even as it deconstructs the genre. Considering the same can be said for Kurosawa's movie, this tenuous balance of postmodern intelligence and old-fashioned storytelling may be rooted in Yamamoto's novel (the author also wrote the source material for Kurosawa's Red Beard and Dodes'ka-den, as well as Masaki Kobayashi's Inn of Evil). In any event, Kill! is a more artful film than its pulp title indicates, yet its title is entirely appropriate.
Kill! is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection both as a stand-alone disc (spine number 313) and as part of the four-disc Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics boxed set. According to Criterion's liner notes, the disc's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer comes directly from the 35mm fine-grain master, digitally remastered. The black-and-white film has a fairly low-contrast look, but that appears to be by Okamoto's design. Blacks aren't quite black, whites don't sparkle, and there's a fairly broad range of grays. The overall effect is earthy, muted, and realistic. The image is clean, stable, and free of video artifacts. Audio has also been restored, and is a simple but clean center-speaker presentation of the original mono track. There are only isolated instances of distortion from the source.
Supplements are extremely limited, consisting of teaser and theatrical trailers, plus a fold-out insert booklet with an insightful essay about the film by Howard Hampton, author of the upcoming Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses.
For fans of Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Sanjuro, Okamoto's film is a must-see. For the chambara neophyte, Kill! is an awfully good place to start: Smart, funny, and action-packed, it's a perfect point of entry into the genre.
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• Theatrical Trailer
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