Kill! (1968)
Directed by Kihachi Okamoto

Starring Tatsuya Nakadai (Genta), Etsushi Takahashi (Tabata), Naoko Kubo (Oikawa), Shigeru Koyama (Ayuzama), Yuriko Hoshi (Chino), Yoshio Tsuchiya (Shinroku Matsuo), Eijiro Tono (Hyogo)
Screenplay by Akira Murao and Kihachi Okamoto
Music by Masaru Sato

Toho Company, 115 minutes
B&W, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Criterion
(Part of the Rebel Samurai box set)

A fond parody of chambara movies arriving toward the end of the 1960s, Kill! packs in loads of story conventions and stock characters from the genre's previous decade and cranks them up to maximum overdrive. At its core it's still enough of a straightforward action movie to stand on its own merits and avoid being a pure cartoon – the humor is left more for samurai movie fans to understand and appreciate. I think it's hilarious and probably my favorite Kihachi Okamoto film, though I admit I am still figuring out all the jokes as I learn more about chambara.

The movie opens with the thoroughly familiar imagery of a disheveled ronin walking into a dusty, ramshackle town. Named Hanjiro Tabata, he meets up with a vagrant called Genta (Tatsuya Nakadai) who is equally destitute and starving. Okamoto begins tweaking the genre archetypes when he reveals that neither of the two men is what he seems. Tabata looks like the samurai who has fallen on hard times, but actually he's a poor farmer with lofty dreams of becoming a samurai. Genta looks like the typical peasant, but in fact he is the ronin, having grown dissatisfied with the samurai life and given it up to live as a commoner. Similar to Okamoto's Warring Clans, Kill! could be described as a chambara buddy comedy. Genta and Tabata get separated and reunited repeatedly throughout the film, with their unlikely meetings on opposing sides of the conflict serving up a lot of the comedy.

The plot involves an appropriately convoluted conspiracy by which corrupt clan boss Ayuzama has a political rival murdered and then covers up his tracks. After committing the assassination, the group of samurai enlist Genta as a messenger to report back to their boss. Tabata likewise makes his way to the clan's castle in hopes of finding employment as a retainer. The clan agrees to hire him as muscle, starting him off with the assignment to kill Genta after he brought word of the assassination, so the news remains confidential. Genta convinces Tabata to let him go and simply report that he's completed the job, much to the relief of Tabata, who has never actually killed anyone yet.

Meanwhile, the seven assassins are sent to hide out in a remote hovel supposedly to await further instructions. In fact, Ayuzama has rounded up a group of ronin to go kill his retainers. Plus, he has another group of his own men who will in turn kill the ronin and any survivors from the first group. Okamoto is playing up the typical villain who double-crosses and triple-crossed and kills everybody in order to keep his nose clean. Ayuzama assigns Tabata to the group of doomed ronin marauders, while Genta decides to help out the holed-up samurai. And it's probably no coincidence that there are seven of them. Unlike Kurosawa's honorable septet of decisive men of action, these seven sit bickering in a room.

Thus the situation is established for Genta and Tabata to alternately clash and covertly work together against Ayuzama. Genta demonstrates for manipulating and outsmarting his foes through clever tricks and improvised deceptions, very much like a ronin version of Bugs Bunny. At one point he fools an adversary into thinking a troop of soldiers is approaching on horseback by banging two coconut shells together – and Kill! preceded Monty Python and the Holy Grail by six years. Later Genta infiltrates Ayuzama's group of henchmen by re-adopting his former samurai identity of Hyodo Yagenta. It's fun watching how much damage Genta can do just by using his wits instead of his sword against a bunch of dumbasses. Genta has a memorable faceoff against an honorable ronin who ends up on Ayuzama's side, like Tabata. It seems inevitable for them to have a tragic duel in which one good man will end up dead. But instead, they talk it out and decide they don't feel like fighting, a refreshing outcome that the standard chambara rulebook doesn't usually allow.

As funny as Genta is, the biggest laughs go to Tabata. In addition to the jokes about his general idealism and naivete, Tabata shows off his amazing brute strength. To win respect when challenged at a rambunctious brothel, Tabata heaves one of the building's support pillars up off the floor and sticks his sandal under it. That makes the crowd back off! Later Tabata bashfully requests some female companionship at the brothel, but he has particular preferences. Being a farmer, he is only attracted to simple girls who "smell of the earth." Perfumed and powdered ladies just don't do it for him. Luckily, Tabata encounters a prostitute with rough hands from farming rice, and after he wipes off her white makeup to make her face grubby, he's found his dream girl.

Curiously, the screenplay for Kill! is based on the same novel (Shugoro Yamamoto's Peaceful Days) that served as the basis for Kurosawa's Sanjuro. Obviously there's plenty of loose adaptation in the films, since the stories have very little in common aside from a clan conspiracy in which a group of low-ranking samurai is misdirected and exploited, and an outsider getting involved to straighten things out. And, of course, the magnificent presence of Tatsuya Nakadai links the two movies.

The Jidai-Geki Knights