The Great Killing (a.k.a. The Great Melee, 1964)
Directed by Eiichi Kudo

The Great Killing
Dai satsujin
Starring Kotaro Satomi (Jinbo), Ryutaro Otomo (Lord Sakai), Minoru Oki, Mikijiro Hira (Matonoshi), Choichiro Kawarazaki, Shiro Osaka (Hoshino), Rinichi Yamamoto (Kusaka), Kantaro Suga (Kufo), Yoshio Inaba (Yamaga),
Screenplay by Kaneo Ikegami

Toei Company, 114 minutes
B&W, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: AnimEigo

Despite the oversimplified notion that all three films known as Kudo's "Samurai Revolution" trilogy tell basically the same cruel jidai-geki story, The Great Killing is a wholly different piece of work. Thirteen Assassins and Eleven Samurai share the closest resemblance as straightforward few-against-many assassination plots, while this one is the difficult middle child. The narrative is far more complex and trickier to follow compared to the other two, with the main parallel being a huge chaotic fight scene at the end. And really, 90 percent of all chambara ever produced could be just as well be connected if that's your analytical linkage.

I have a hard time understanding The Great Killing even having viewed it several times, but here is my best attempt to summarize what it's about. The shogunate is cracking down on rebel samurai conspiracies aimed at overthrowing what they consider corruption in government. A straight-laced samurai named Jinbo (Kotaro Satomi) unwillingly gets caught up in the intrigue when his friend Nakajima bursts into his home seeking refuge while being hunted down as a traitor. In the ensuing tumult, shogun officers kill Nakajima and also senselessly cut down Jinbo's wife.

Suddenly a fugitive himself through no act of his own, Jinbo first takes shelter with a politically uninvolved ronin named Matonoshi. Jinbo soon ends up joining Nakajima's gang and fighting for their cause, resolving not to remain indifferent like the passive, hedonistic ronin. The rebels are a motley crew made of a very determined woman, a jovial family man, a lecherous monk, a dojo master and various other misfits. Together they plot to kill Chancellor Kofu, who for some convoluted reason is the father of the shogun's designated heir.

The Great Killing is based on historical figures and events, but it's really more a allegory for Japan's student protests of the 1960s. No doubt the movie is much easier to comprehend and appreciate for the native audience and experts in Japanese history. It's a finely crafted film with the best cinematography in the "Samurai Revolution" trilogy. Osamu Furuya shoots the quiet dialogue scenes with a refined elegance, while the action sequences get an adrenaline jolt from handheld camerawork that was ahead of its time, prefiguring the Saving Private Ryan combat documentary style familiar today. The climactic assassination ambush is sloppier and less controlled than the one showcased in Thirteen Assassins, less heroic and closer to what might happen in real life if a crowd of people desperately went after each other with swords.

Because of its political relevance and artistic look, The Great Killing is the Eiichi Kudo film most likely to get a Criterion Collection release or run in an art house film festival. There's plenty of meat here for cappuccino-sipping cinephiles to sink their teeth into, should they deign to view something as gauche as a non-Kurosawa samurai film. But for my money, I'd rather sit down with a big bowl of popcorn and enjoy the far more accessible entertainment of Thirteen Assassins or Eleven Samurai.

The Jidai-Geki Knights