In anyone else’s hands, Kill! would have been demented nonsense, but Kihachi Okamoto and Tatsuya Nakadai make it into transcendent nonsense. Here is one of the most outlandish and Byzantine plots ever put into a samurai movie, but it’s played for black comedy and gleeful farce rather than the usual self-important seriousness. It freely raids a number of different chanbara film clichés—the disloyal but courageous retainer, the band of rebel samurai, the country bumpkin who makes good, the nobleman with a crush on a girl of a lower class, etc. All of them get lined up against the wall and machine-gunned with anarchic glee.
Kill! is also further testament to the skills of director Okamoto (Sword of Doom, Red Lion) and actor Nakadai (Doom, Ran). Okamoto makes the absurd material not only palatable but riotously funny. Nakadai does something even more impressive: he’s an actor with a haunted-looking, unmistakable face, but in Kill! he manages to look so unlike his previous roles (except, of course, for those frightened eyes) that for minutes on end I wasn’t even sure if I was looking at him.
In fact, the movie doesn’t even start with Nakadai. Instead, we have the rubber-faced Etsushi Takahashi as Genjiro, a starving loser who falls into a dustbowl of a hamlet with no money and no job. Genjiro stumbles into the inn to grab a bite to eat, only to discover the old lady who runs the place swinging from the rafters. He’s about to kill the only other living thing around—a miserable-looking chicken pecking its way through the dirt—when he encounters someone else who’s hatching the same idea: Genta (Nakadai). Genta was once a yakuza, or so he says, and is as easygoing and amused as Genjiro is high-strung and desperate. The two of them like each other—or, rather, Genta finds Genjiro amusing, and likes to hang around him just to see how this country bumpkin with the fake bamboo sword’ll react.
Through plot complications too ridiculous to relate here, the two of them wind up becoming employed by both factions in a local rebellion. A band of samurai (yes, seven samurai; the reference is unmistakable) have been tricked into killing another clan’s lord by their own master. The whole thing is a setup, of course: they’ve been written off by their own rather cynical leader as patsies. Genjiro ends up in the service of said leader, while Genta finds himself allied with the seven—although he seems to be with them more out of pity than a sense of righteousness, since they can barely stop fighting amongst themselves long enough to muster a decent defense against getting stabbed in the back.
If you sense parallels to Akira Kurosawa’s Sanjuro, that’s not an accident: both of them were derived from the same source material, but the two movies couldn’t be more unalike. Kurosawa’s movie is nowhere nearly this deranged, and I doubt he would ever have tried to make anything like it in the first place. The plot’s really not all that important, anyway, even if it seems like it is. Everything that happens is mostly contrast and color for the two principals—for Genjiro’s salt-of-the-earth gung-ho attitude and Genta’s all-too-knowing outsider wisdom. Genta was himself once a samurai, and gave it up because what he was commanded to do in that capacity went against common sense. When he sees Genjiro eager to become one, he’s dismayed. A guy this earnest shouldn’t be kowtowing to anyone else; he knows all too well what that leads to.
The movie is full of examples of each outlook. Early on, Genjiro has been commanded to kill his buddy for interfering in affairs, but he’s such a wretched swordsman that he can’t even land a hit on the other man at pointblank range. (Genta then comes up with a “compromise:” “So, don’t kill me, just say you did!”—which the slow-witted Genjiro actually thinks is a really good idea.) Neither of them particularly likes to kill, actually, and at one point Genta speaks for both of them: “Kill or be killed…both of them would just leave a nasty aftertaste.” That doesn’t stop either of them from wading into the fray time and again to stop others from being butchered—again, not out of heroism, but because it really hurts to see people you’re fond of die like complete idiots.
Kill! also finds many concrete, funny ways to dramatize each character’s perspective: Genjiro, despite having allegedly left his farmer’s roots behind, is still so much a farmer at heart that when he finally can afford a prostitute he scrubs off her makeup and shrieks with glee at the sight of the hoe calluses on her hands. Genta is a born improviser, and in one of the very funniest moments in the whole film he uses the Monty Python coconut-shell trick to fool a mounted samurai into thinking he’s being paced by a whole regiment of men on horseback. Even funnier is a moment involving Genjiro’s sandal and one of the support beams in the house, not because the joke itself makes any sense (it doesn’t) but because it’s played almost entirely off the faces of the baffled onlookers.
Okamoto and Nakadai both seem to have something in common other than shared cinematic credits. Nakadai was a versatile actor, so much so that he suffered from the same problem of relative anonymity that plagues many such actors in an era of packaged and managed public personas. He didn’t have the star appeal or the instantly-identifiable (shilling for typecast) aura of Toshiro Mifune, but his acting was every bit as impressive, and it was through him that I first encountered Japanese film via Kurosawa’s Ran. Likewise, Okamoto turned his feisty energy to a number of different kinds of movies, and while his samurai productions remain the most widely-seen and appreciated he worked in almost every genre you could imagine: science fiction (Blue Christmas), Catch-22-style war satire (Human Bullet) and just plain weirdness (Jazz Daimyo).
The era of the samurai ended over a hundred and fifty years ago, and since then Japan’s attitude towards it through its popular arts has gone from blistering satire to oddly nostalgic veneration. Many of the best movies in this space were the more critical ones (like Kill! or the scarifying Shura), not specifically because they were critical but because through that outlook they had more to say about the subject than conventionally reverent ones (like Twilight Samurai or the achingly sentimental When The Last Sword is Drawn) did. Kill! is anything but reverent, and ends up having a great deal to say about its material and its characters between its many broad laughs.
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