A while back, I reviewed Ronin Gai, a drama that set out to demystify the romanticized image of the samurai. It was a good idea, but unfortunately, the dour way in which it went about its business resulted in an overall depressing experience. Kihachi Okamoto’s Kill! sets about accomplishing the same task, only this time around, he uses a humorous approach to lighten the proceedings. I felt confident that the film would live up to its promises as a wry parody of the samurai genre, but it wasn’t too long before Okamoto revealed that his bag of tricks wasn’t very well-stocked.
Based on the same novel that inspired Akira Kurosawa’s Sanjuro, Kill! introduces viewers to two men from different walks of life. Hanjiro (Etsushi Takahashi) is a farmer who dreams of becoming a samurai. Genta (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a former warrior himself, having chosen to turn his back on the way of the samurai and live the rest of his days as a vagrant. The pair converge upon a veritable ghost town that was overrun by Yakuza men long ago. Each hoping to start a new life or even just fill their bellies, the men instead end up on opposite sides of an increasingly confusing conflict. Seven samurai who banded together to take down a corrupt official have been accused of murder and now find themselves holed up in a mountain fort. While the impressionable Hanjiro is drafted into hunting down the seven warriors, the crafty Genta joins their cause, using his wits to help save them from a crooked mastermind’s machinations.
The same can be applied to the samurai film as to its American counterpart, the Western. Both genres rely more on atmosphere and attitude than anything else; taken too lightly or too seriously, the whole house of cards can collapse in a second. Thus, the premise of Kill! isn’t to recite samurai convention but to deconstruct such elements and have a little fun in the process. At least that’s what it claims, because the vast majority of the film plays out in straightforward jidaigeki fashion. It’s not like Azumi, which takes a little extra time before deciding what sort of tone it wants to adopt. Kill! establishes what it wants to be right off the bat, only to ignore its own decision and hardly address it ever again. Okamoto (The Sword of Doom) doesn’t seem to have his heart as set on enhancing the film’s satirical edge as he thinks he does. Viewers get a couple of introspective scenes in which characters discuss what it really means to be a samurai, but they feel too much like throwaway moments maintaining the illusion of a brain at work.
What cripples Kill! the most is how much it leans on the story. In films like this, the plot is usually the least important aspect, the focus instead being on how the characters handle themselves under the circumstances. Hanjiro and Genta are two very colorful cats, but as I waited for their time to shine, I was treated to one of the most sluggish tales in all of samurai cinema. It’s a story that only gets more murky with every twist, and Okamoto’s insistence on pressing forward serves to undermine those elements trying to turn the film inside out. Kill! could’ve just as easily been a crazy ride filled with kooky characters, some of which (including a particularly zealous henchman) end up putting in all-too-brief appearances. Instead, it’s content to waste its time mulling over a mundane turn of events with the bare minimum of creative oomph. Fortunately, despite it all, Takahashi and especially Nakadai pitch in with energetic turns. The cinematography is also pretty striking, low-key but crisply executed by DP Rokuro Nishigaki.
Perhaps Kill! is every bit the pseudo-parody it purports to be, and I just need to school myself more in the samurai genre to pick up on all its subtleties. I look forward to revisiting the film in the future, but until then, the verdict stands that Kill! is guilty of slicing its own potential to ribbons.