Thursday, September 27, 2007

Dir. by Kihachi Okamoto

The received wisdom is that the Western (Shane, The Searchers, Stagecoach) begat the Samurai film (Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Seven Samurai) which begat the Spaghetti Western (A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). Of course it was never so easy, Kill! shows Okamoto’s ability to incorporate all those influences and feed them back with a generous dose of comic comment.

The scene is set in classic fashion: a sandstorm in a burnt-out ruin of a town. A ragged wanderer enters, instead of confidently taking stock of the situation he brashly announces he is a REAL SAMURAI and just as soon as he gets a meal he’s going to get a samurai job. His meal plans devolve to scrabbling in the dust for a chicken even more scrawny and ragged than himself. The “samurai” is Hanjiro (Etsushi Takahashi) a strong but not-too-bright type who’s looking to move up in the world. Sharing his quest for the chicken is Genta (Tatsuya Nakadai), who claims to be no more than a yakuza (a term for gangster derived from a losing hand at cards, the very name encodes the Japanese sense that to be an outlaw is to be a loser). Their quest for chicken tempura is interrupted by an assassination. A group of idealistic young samurai have decided to murder a corrupt official. Seven of the young men survive, only to find out they’ve been betrayed, the lord who connived at their act of political murder wants them dead. The Seven will take the blame and the lord will reap the reward. The only thing that stands in the way of the evil plan is Genta’s ability to sabotage it with a Bugs Bunny-like defiance and wit that is more in the nature of a trickster hero than a sword-swinging killer.

This is of course a re-take of Kurosawa’s classics: Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Seven Samurai, and even The 47 Ronin. The joke is that the idealists are something closer to suckers, the peasant who wants to be a real samurai is disillusioned, and the loner who holds the balance is less a determined avenger than a man trying to live down his own past. Nakadai plays Genta as a marvelously diffident vagrant whose very cynicism allows him to penetrate the follies of the idealists, crooks, and hired swords around him. Takahashi plays off him giving a Hanjiro a wide-eyed acceptance and enthusiasm that literally has him bouncing off the walls. Takahashi conjures it deftly in a scene where the crooked lord is laying out his scheme for the hired thugs, while everybody is listening respectfully Hanjiro is fidgeting like a kindergartner who just had a Pepsi and half a box of Twinkies. Hanjiro is revealed as a true Son of the Earth, he likes his women “earthy” too.

Kill! plays with a comic deflation of samurai ethics in much the same way the Spaghetti Westerns turned the traditional Western on its head. If Tuco Ramirez wandered into the middle of Kill! he’d be right at home. Masaru Sato’s (he also scored Yojimbo, Sanjuro and about over a hundred other films) score is a Japanese echo of Ennio Morricone.

Okamoto was a director of consummate skill. Though never so widely known as Kurosawa, Okamoto’s many masterpieces (Sword of Doom, Red Lion, Human Bullet) have seeped into the consciousness of film fans. Okamoto’s satiric vision deserves to be better known.

-Dave Hardy

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