Friday, May 30, 2008

REVIEW: Kill! - Kihachi Okamoto (1968)

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

I love spaghetti westerns. Among my favorite movies are Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West. I am an absolute sucker for these movies’ portrayals of unbridled masculinity, hard-hitting violence, bravado filmmaking techniques and the perfect way that they blend together action and adventure into a captivating cinematic package. It should come as no surprise that I love samurai films for many of the same reasons, as it is well-known that they served as a significant influence on the origins of the spaghetti western (specifically when Leone remade Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo as A Fistful of Dollars). Wandering gunslingers and wandering samurai are very often merely two different versions of the same character, one wielding six-shooters in the old American West, the other bearing a razor-sharp katana in medieval Japan .

Kill!, made in 1968 by The Sword of Doom director Kihachi Okamoto, proudly wears its mixed lineage on its sleeve, peppering its story of seven faithful wannabe-samurai fighting against a corrupt chamberlain with dusty village squares, a quirky soundtrack by Masuru Sato that is quite reminiscent of Ennio Morricone and broad strokes of jet-black humor. It in fact can be seen as a sister film to Yojimbo’s sequel Sanjuro, as both films share the same source novel. However, the latter very much revolved around the planet-sized persona of Toshirô Mifune while Okamoto’s film lacks the same kind of focus point, and it’s quite easy for the viewer to get lost amid all the double- and triple-crossings that occur in the plot. But then again, for a film such as this one, plot is beside the point, while action, character and style are really what you should be paying attention to.

One of the best things about Kill! is the wonderful Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays the story’s Sanjuro character, here named Genta. However, instead of trying to emulate Mifune’s macho swagger (an impossible feat if there ever was one), Nakadai instead adopts his own unique approach, acting and talking in a cool, matter-of-fact manner regardless of how dire his situation may be at any given moment. Genta is a world-weary ex-samurai-turned-yakuza who devotes himself to helping the seven young men in an effort to try and remember what being a samurai used to mean. The two other main characters, Hanjiro (Etsushi Takahashi), an ex-farmer whose surname, Tabata, means “paddy field,” and Tetsutaro (Atsuo Nakamura), who leads the small band of faithful warriors, both long to be samurai themselves, yet they are constantly reminded throughout the film (mostly by the already-disillusioned Genta) that being a samurai isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and Kill! gives the image of the righteous samurai a more realistic, warts-and-all makeover à la Seven Samurai.

Though a tad convoluted, Kill! still offers loads of samurai goonery and ultraviolent hijinks that should satisfy casual viewers and jidai-geki fans alike. All in all, it is a fairly satisfying flick that offers just as much pulpy entertainment value as a good Elmore Leonard novel – in other words, great fare for summer viewing.

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog.

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