Kihachi Okamoto’s dynamic, intricately madcap Kill! is a multitoned send-up of samurai film lore. With its crosshatched plot stitching, zigzag modulations, and dust-blown stock figures (Tatsuya Nakadai as a hobo swordsman, plus a peasant bumpkin turned would-be samurai, a dispossessed retainer, one kidnapped chamberlain and one kidnap-per-chamberlain, a mercenary who needs thirty ryo to buy his wife’s freedom from a brothel, and even seven squabbling samurai in search of a raison d’être), Kill! shuffles the Cliffs Notes to every roamin’ ronin saga from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo through Okamoto’s masterfully severe The Sword of Doom (1965). What especially captivates here is the accomplished, deceptively casual way that Okamoto has been able to distill broad strains of historical/aesthetic end-of-an-era anxiety, folkloric comedy, melodramatic intrigue, and light-hearted absurdism. Kill! is a running (and sometimes standing very still, chewing the fat) commentary on the vagaries, foibles, and pleasures of the swordplay genre.
The film also tosses in assorted off-beat spaghetti western touches, most notably Masaru Sato’s intermittently droll and wobbly music, which evokes the surf guitar Ventures as much as Ennio Morricone. (Sato’s classic Yojimbo score, where he established a percussive, risible, satiric-ominous Threepenny Opera tone, on instruments ranging from the harpsichord to the bass saxophone, may have influenced the spa western as much as Kurosawa’s direction.) Though incorporating slapstick and ridiculous elements—or naturally drawing them out of the preposterousness implicit in the unsmiling codification of the genre—Kill! maintains a wry, quasi-dramatic equilibrium that only occasionally dips into the farcical for its own sake. It satirizes the obligatory nature of rigid conventions without disrespecting the form—or the characters.
Kill! definitely feels like a product of 1968—not in any overt anarchic/upending sense (Okamoto retains forceful control over even the most spavined interruptions), but in the strangely genial atmosphere of masculine conventions at the end of their tethers. From the first sandstorm blast, signaling bad existential weather ahead, the movie arrives at the crossroads of Hyperbole and Poker-Faced Indignity—a practiced desolation exaggerated for wily comic effect. The only thing moving on the streets of a dilapidated town is a single scrawny chicken. Chasing it, the starving, blockheaded Hanjiro (Etsushi Takahashi) bumps into Genta (Nakadai), and a vaudevillian rapport between the two bum-fighters is struck. As they are swept up in the struggle between competing factions, winding up on opposite sides, their ambivalence undermines any spouted language of duty, honor, or civil authority—they are a couple of overage messenger boys just trying to survive in a world that’s palpably breaking apart.
Genta, too, is quite a sight: dirty, stubbled, baleful, and sheepish, he is the wide-eyed antithesis of Nakadai’s immaculately ruthless narcissist in The Sword of Doom. Throughout the movie, he gives us a leisurely study in shifting outlook. Genta is a marvel of casual, winning subterfuge, all-knowing one moment, dropping fifty IQ points in a sleepy blink the next, a go-between paddling through multiple backgrounds, eavesdropping on treachery, manipulating sticky situations with a guileless, helpful grin. “Don’t really kill me . . . say that you did,” Genta sensibly advises Hanjiro when the latter is sent to rub him out. Hanji is overeager but practical, open, with a funny fetish for grime: “I want a girl who smells like the earth” is his wistful brothel request, so he’s ecstatic when he scrubs off the woman’s makeup and hits pay dirt.
Kill! is dotted with sequences like the one where the inhospitable samurai points the starving man to the only food in town, an establishment where all he finds is a hanging woman. (Times are hard when cooks commit suicide on the café premises.) A windswept ambush is depicted from the perspective of a crowing gangster above (“Death to all samurai!”), while below an aghast Genta worms away from the writhing, mutilated bodies to get to a safer vantage point. (His mortified look as he peers through wooden slats is one of the most eloquent images in the film.) At the other end of the spectrum, nothing tops the utilitarian shamelessness of Genta faking hoof beats to make a traitor think horsemen are on his trail; in tiny spots here and there, Kill! almost seems a precursor to the sketch comedy mentality that would variously produce Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Takeshi Kitano, and John Belushi’s notorious “Samurai.”
As a screen presence, Nakadai resembles a Japanese Alain Delon, though his striking matinee idol features (those cheekbones could shave glass) come with more disparate, adaptable traits. That absence of an easily quantifiable identity—the hook of a relatively consistent underlying persona—is perhaps what kept him from the international recognition of a Delon or a Toshiro Mifune. Working usually in idiomatic terrain—with such directorial unlikes as Hideo Gosha, Masaki Kobayashi, and Hiroshi Teshigahara, in addition to Okamoto and Kurosawa—outside his homeland, he never fully escaped Mifune’s overbearing shadow, even when standing in for the great rogue in Kurosawa’s Kagemusha and Ran. His intense part, as the man with the surgically devised mask-visage, in Teshigahara’s The Face of Another is an apt metaphor for his acting career in many respects: he adopts different looks, expressive methods, and strategies for presenting himself from one film to the next. Unlike the proverbial swordsman who sticks to a single school, he has been more of a self-effacing craftsman who uses whatever technique seems appropriate to the context at hand.
Okamoto, who died in early 2005, was a director who belonged to the wartime generation and whose attitude toward violence was naturally colored by firsthand exposure to its senseless opportunities (see the chillingly empty, self-defeating, head-brandishing “triumph” at the end of Samurai Assassin ). He’s best known in the West for the majestic Sword of Doom, which approaches the stature of a nihilist John Ford undertaking, an indoor anti-Searchers where Nakadai’s wholly destructive, death-infatuated samurai is ensnared by his own guilty past. Kill! engagingly breaks the deadlock found in much of the chanbara, or swordplay, genre—including Okamoto’s own work—between iconoclastic revisionism, on the one hand, and somber glorification, on the other. Here the heroic-obsessive is subsumed by the ironic-neurotic-ridiculous, erasing any subterranean hint of feudal noblesse oblige nostalgia. As Genta soliloquizes: “Kill or be killed—either would just leave an unpleasant aftertaste.”
As only a fraction of Okamoto’s nearly forty films have circulated outside Japan, his reputation as a samurai specialist ought to be adjusted, in light of a long track record of Manchurian-frontier westerns, yakuza flicks, UFO parables, and kamikaze protest comedies. A slew of unlikely films, including Human Bullet (1968), Blue Christmas (1978), and, most bizarrely of all, Jazz Daimyo (1986), have had little to no exposure outside his homeland. Jazz Daimyo, which imagines ex-slaves washing ashore in the nineteenth-century shogunate and (highly anachronistically) bringing Dixieland to old Edo, has a tantalizing premise that indicates an impish, unpredictable sensibility well beyond the standard saber-rattling template.
Indeed, Okamoto’s accent on offbeat, puckish displays in Kill! demonstrates a marked affinity between samurai/yakuza mythologies and jazz that is often ignored: the picturesque image of a lone man with a sword/gun/horn who is immersed, at the same time, in the jostling textures and formalized ensemble patterns of snare-tattooed life. “Jazziness” is usually perceived in terms of urban rat-a-tat-tat action, noir settings, syncopated editing, and boppish visual grammar (weird angles, modular decor, trick lighting), but is conveyed here through more subdued, oblique means. Judicious whole-note close-ups (Nakadai’s sad eyes speak volumes—the reluctant killer as soulful ingenue) are set off by cognitively dissonant jump cuts, while a samurai gunned down in the fog spins like a tap dancer doing a solo on his own grave. Journeymen and virtuoso swordsmen have cutting (and staring) contests, arcane stylistic allegiances and lacunae are parsed, nightclub/brothel crawling’s indulged, and displays of uncanny dexterity abound (like a gimpy, practically immobilized Genta getting the upper hand on an unbeatable foe, in the closest quarters possible).
The tone of Kill! parallels the simultaneously humorous and elegiac compositions/arrangements that Carla Bley supplied for Gary Burton’s 1968 album A Genuine Tong Funeral. It redistributes those orchestral qualities along an arc of stately mannerisms, precisely overblown notes, and propulsive eccentricity. The riotously choreographed musical floor show at the brothel (and the festival reprise that briefly spills into the concluding free-for-all) has a way-out zest that’s even more fanciful and eclectic, with all the condensed cacophony of a Sun Ra number: a whirligig feast of chants, shrieks, rhythmic slaps, lunging dancers, and shamisen-strumming geishas.
Beaten down and beaten up, the vagrant Genta is presented as the Man with Noh Name—handsome stranger, grubby loser, disillusioned idealist/clown, and resourceful fighter rolled into one. “Nice introduction,” he tells the long-winded retainer, addressing the audience as much as the hapless exposition bearer. As Kill! makes its appeal to the chanbara connoisseur, it also manages to offer the novice a fine crash course in the form and its discontents. “I’m Genta,” our everymensch hero says, waving away ceremonial etiquette. “No introduction.”
Howard Hampton’s Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses will be published in 2006 by Harvard University Press.