Review: Kill! (1968)

This film’s a great bit of fun for fans of Japanese cinema, particularly the chambara genre — swordplay films set in period Japan. Kill! is a comedic take on the genre’s conventions, loosely based on the same source material as Akira Kurosawa’s film Sanjuro (Shugoro Yamamoto’s novel Peaceful Days).

Our two lead characters are the simple farmer who wants desperately to become a samurai, Hanji (played by Etsushi Takahashi), and a worldly samurai-turned-yakuza named Genta (played by Tatsuya Nakadai). They meet on the road as they enter a deserted village in the middle of a storm, penniless and starving. Hanji has heard that ronin (masterless swordsmen) are needed by the locals, while Genta seems to be just a wanderer looking for his next meal.

Both are drawn into a local political conflict, as a group of seven naive local samurai murder the corrupt second-in-command of their clan. They’re in turn set up by their leader, who organises a squad of ronin and other clan members to kill them as traitors. Hanji ends up in this squad, lured by the promise of elevation to samurai status. Genta, on the other hand, is reminded of similar political maneuverings from his past, events that led him to give up the samurai world. He resolves to help the seven samurai who’ve been set up for no reason other than political expediency.

Kill is full of comedy, reminding me quite a bit of The Hidden Fortress with its focus on the interaction between common folk and samurai. Hanji is a simple farmer who is kept around for his enormous strength: his impromptu lessons on swordsmanship from Genta and his disdain for the made-up ladies in the local brothel (“bring me a girl who smells like the earth!”) provide a great deal of the simple humour in the film. Genta, on the other hand, is like Sanjuro or Zatoichi (or Clint Eastwood’s characters from Leone’s westerns), cynical, self-confident and aware of everything around him. Tatsuya Nakadai brings a good-natured levity to the character, grinning occasionally at Hanji’s pratfalls and coming across as eminently likeable.

There are a lot of stylistic nods to Kurosawa and Leone (whose A Fistful of Dollars is a remake of Yojimbo) in this film. It’s quite a different story than Sanjuro, though, and the direction is quite different. The tone of the film switches quite rapidly, moving from deadly serious to broad comedy almost like a Hong Kong film from the 1980s. It’s enthralling to watch, though, and Nakadai’s performance in particular is thoroughly worth the purchase price.

9 incredibly lucky chickens out of 10.
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