Criterion Reflections – Kill! (1968) – #313

Kill

David’s Quick Take for the tl;dr Media Consumer:

Kill! is an entertaining and unusual take on the samurai/swordplay genre that plays for laughs many of the conventional tropes and set-ups common in the classic films from that tradition. I was fascinated observing how many of the fighting techniques, interpersonal conflicts, man vs. world showdowns and dramatic battle scenes that impact viewers with awe-inspiring tension can become a showcase of hilarity with just a slight exaggeration of tone, body language or facial expression (or simply cranking the fans that stir up dust clouds an extra notch or two.) Barking dialog that would come across as solemn and severe in more straightforward, traditional chanbara epics conveys much of the same surface meaning in advancing the story along in Kill! but also ends up generating a nice side helping of mirth in the process. Though at least one review considers the film an ideal introduction to samurai flicks for new viewers, I disagree with that assessment. It’s much more gratifying to approach Kill! after having absorbed a good sampling of the standard classics of that type, so that the subtle jokes and insider parodies can be better appreciated. But to immediately contradict myself, I suppose that this approach could work for novices who enjoy the early Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns, since they seem to be an indirect target of more than a few of the visual and musical jokes as well.

How the Film Speaks to 1968:

It seems pretty obvious to in retrospect that the creative juice of traditional jidaigeki films was starting to dry up by the end of the 1960s. That’s pretty understandable when one considers just how aggressively that vein had been mined over the course of the preceding decade, especially after Akira Kurosawa achieved new heights of massive worldwide popularity with the release of Yojimbo and its sequel Sanjuro. Those two films hardly invented the form, which had been a staple of Japanese cinema for decades, but they did create a lot of momentum within the nation’s film industry to try out any and all interesting variations on the theme. So it was inevitable that “comedy samurai adventures” would someday be a thing, and for all I know, there were dozens of such films created before Kill! was released in the spring of 1968. (Actually, several of the mid-Sixties Zatoichi episodes veered heavily in that direction, and not always all that successful either.) But what makes this one feel special among its peers is how deftly it blends so many elements of genre cliches and a more eclectic splash of pop culture sensibilities into a well-told, consistently engaging story.

Kill! was directed by Kihachi Okamoto and starred Tatsuya Nakadai, who had paired up two years earlier in the overwhelmingly bleak and nihilistic The Sword of Doom. They both switch gears quite effectively in this outing, lightening up considerably and maintaining a sharp balance that provokes chuckles while allowing genuine narrative tension to build at various points. The story employs traditional hostilities that existed between different layers of society in Japan’s feudal era: farmers vs. samurai, criminal gangs vs. shogunate authorities. A samurai-turned-yakuza winds up in an uneasy partnership with a farmer who aspires to pass himself off as a samurai mercenary, but then the duo fall into opposite sides of a conflict between seven hired assassins who do the dirty work of a corrupt official, who then betrays them in a conspiracy to cover up his crimes by organizing a lethal assault on the now-disposable flunkies.

That’s a super-short synopsis, and if you know how these movies go, you can easily imagine how quickly the subplots begin to tangle. The rapid switchbacks and constantly ratcheting pressures of shifting alliances are a main target of Okamoto’s satirical portrayal, and the point of it all can be simply summed up: men are untrustworthy, self-serving and scandalously vulnerable to corruption if the right deal comes along; in such a world, a man must be ready to Kill!… or be killed. If one chooses to go deeper into the details of the narrative, it appears to hold together well enough, but it’s hardly necessary to track it all that closely in order to feel entertained, which is the net effect that this film had on its original audiences, as Kill! turned out to be a significant box office success. Its insolent, cynical mockery of time-honored bushido values, coupled with Okamoto’s occasionally zany and consistently irreverent humor, ideologically aligns the film with contemporaneous works released in 1968 by Nagisa Oshima (Death by Hanging and Three Resurrected Drunkards) and Kaneto Shindo (Kuroneko).

How the Film Speaks to Me Today:

In reading up on the movie and its director, I enjoyed learn a bit more about Okamoto’s work and to see this demonstration of his versatility. (Links posted below; I particularly recommend the lengthy thesis essay titled “Comedy, Jazz and Carnage” for an in-depth study of Okamoto’s career.) From what I’ve read, his filmography clearly deserves wider distribution and I hope that Criterion will find a way to get more of his stuff out there, even if just in a streaming-only format through their upcoming FilmStruck service. Likewise, Nakadai is amazing in this role. It’s far from his most demanding performance, as he’s much more comedic and relaxed in his affect. But that’s fine with me because I like seeing this lighter side of his talent brought to the forefront, in what was probably somewhat of a breezy casting assignment for him, after taking on such complex and heavyweight characters in earlier movies as diverse as The Face of Another, Harakiri and High and Low. Surrounding Nakadai is a sturdy cast of samurai-flick veterans with faces more familiar than their names to genre aficionados who’ve seen more than a few of these productions.

Kill! is a unique title within the four disc collection Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics, one of the most peculiar box sets that Criterion ever released, at least from a marketing perspective. From the day they were first issued on DVD back in October 2005, all four of the films could be purchased individually or as a set, depending on the preference of the buyer. The box was definitely the better deal, as it retailed for around $100, a savings of $20 or so if each of the discs were bought separately at the $29.95 SRP. I could see some collectors only opting for one or two of the titles, with Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion (starring Toshiro Mifune in an outstanding performance from later in his career) as the obvious highlight. Masahiro Shinoda’s Samurai Spy and Hideo Gosha’s Sword of the Beast also have their own respective strengths as standalone offerings. Kill!, by contrast, might be the one that budget-conscious chanbara fans regard as less than essential, owing to its reputation as more lightweight and comic in tone, even to the point of verging on genre parody. But I think that would be a mistake – just get the box, it’s completely worth it! I won’t bother to offer my list of subjective rankings of the four films; to me, there’s no question that all of them have something worthwhile and unique to offer, and as the last title (chronologically speaking) in the set, I think Kill! serves as the perfect note to go out on. Though many great samurai films would continue to be made in the years ahead, with its knowingly self-referential summation of the genre to that point in time, this one seems to mark the end of an era.

Recommended Reviews and Resources:

Postscript:

The next film in my chronological queue is Dusan Makavejev’s Innocence Unprotected, a film that I thoroughly enjoy and wouldn’t mind watching again, as a matter of fact. But I’ve reviewed it already (way back in 2010) and recorded a podcast on the Dušan Makavejev: Free Radical Eclipse Series set just last year, so I don’t think I have much that’s new to say about it. Rather than post a new article on the site, I’m content to just repost those links and move on to something I haven’t seen before.

Previously: Rosemary’s Baby

Next: Profound Desires of the Gods