I’m not at all sure that I would have recognized that Okamoto Kihachi’s ” Kiru” (Kill!, 1968) was based on the same novel (the ironically titled Peaceful Days by Yamamoto Shugoro [1903-1967], who also wrote the novels that Kurosawa’s “Red Beard” and “Dodes’ka-den” were based upon) as Kurosawa’s “Sanjuro” (1962). I mean, there are a lot of movies with ronin (masterless samurai) wandering around and getting involved in local disputes and putting on displays of superior swordsmanship to the local retainers.
Also, Okamoto’s version starts earlier in the story than Kurosawa’s and has two major characters that Kurosawa combined into one—and also two bands of retainers that Kurosawa merged. I might just have thought that the two movies shared the theme of a detached ronin saving a group of anti-corruption samurai. The group of less-than-savvy samurais (seven in Okamoto’s version, nine in Kurosawa’s) are more differentiated in Okamoto’s version. In Kurosawa’s they follow their savior/new leader “like a trail of excrement attached to a goldfish.” They are unified in whatever direction they are running off in. There is considerable disagreement about what to do in Okamoto’s group.
The scruffy ronin (Mifune Toshirô) in “Sanjuro” hides the samurai under the floorboards of a house. The scruffy ronin (Nakadai Tatsuya) in “Kiru,” sends them off to a mountain stronghold. In both cases, the samurai have reported local corruption to precisely the main malefactor, who has asked them to assemble so he can hear what they know in person (the better to have them together to be slaughtered). The ronin recognizes the trap, creates diversions, and arranges the rescue of the chamberlain that the samurai have thought must be the guilty party. In both movies, the ronin’s tactics are clever and produce some slapstick comedy along with some witty flair.
“Kiru” is much more pointed a critique of blind obedience and misplaces loyalty than “Sanjuro” is. In “Sanjuro” the samurai are naive but committed to the samurai code of honor. In “Kiru” the anti-corruption samurai are more self-interested and concerned about self-preservation. The critique of blindly following the commands of evil masters is explicitly stated by Genta (Nakadai) to Hanji (Etsushi Takahashi) a strong peasant who has sold his small land-holding to buy a sword and seek work as a samurai (though the ranks was hereditary).
The two meet early in the movie, as Hanji is attempting to sneak up on a scrawny chicken. Both Hanji and Genta are very hungry. I hope it will not be considered a plot spoiler to reveal that the chicken survives. A whole lot of soldiers do not. There is an early slaughter that is witnessed by Genta.
When Hanji seeks employment by the rapacious ruling clique of the area (Joshu Province, 1833), he is assigned a probationary employment assignment of killing Genta. Hanji’s attempts are quite funny, and after multiple failures Genta advises him to tell the bosses that he has fulfilled his mission. Throughout the movie, Genta discourages Hanji’s desire to become a samurai and points out the aspects of the role that led him (Genta) to abandon it. The denouement of this is very funny and beautifully filmed.
In “Sanjuro” Nakadai played the honorable and highly skilled captain working for the bad guys (undertaken in “Kiru” by Shin Kishida, who needs money to buy the freedom of the woman he loves), while Mifune had all the fun of quipping, berating his inept protégés, and confusing the bad guys by seeming to help them. Nakadai was a very intense actor with very large eyes, thick eyebrows, and a height ( nearly six feet) that was extremely unusual among Japanese then. Instead of just being tied up as Mifune was in “Sanjuro,” Nakadai’s Genta has an extended beating scene (recalling similar abuse he suffered in the middle film of Kobayashi’s “The Human Condition” trilogy). This leads to his final duel in which he is in even worse physical shape than the character he played at the end of Okamoto’s “Sword of Doom” (1967). The final showdown in “Kiru” is far wittier and entertaining than the ultimate confrontation in “Sanjuro.” (OK, that could be considered faint praise, since the final scene in “Sanjuro” is the most serious one in the whole movie, so let me say that the duel in “Kiru” is one of the best fight scenes ever!)
Nakadai’s comic timing is excellent, and it must have been a lot of fun for him to play the role, not least following the difficult role of the evil-minded master swordsman in “Sword of Doom” (Okamoto, 1966) and having played straight man to Mifune’s antics in “Sanjuro.” I think that Nakadai had greater range than Mifune (not that Mifune had a small range!). When I first saw the culmination of Kurosawa’s career in “Kagemusha” and “Ran,” I did not recognize that the leading character in them was the same actor who two decades before had played subordinate roles in Kurosawa movies starring Mifune (and I had not seen any Kobayashi or Okamoto movies). Not only was Nakadai outstanding in 1960s and 1980s movies, but he is still going strong. Although Mifune strikes me as the most charismatic 20th-century Japanese screen actor, Nakadai arguably was the best 20th-century Japanese screen actor. Genta is one of his greatest roles.
“Kiru” has considerable visual wit, too, and cinematographer Rokuro Nishigaki produced many excellent (widescreen, of course) compositions. (I’ve already mentioned the final one. It recalls “The Umbrellas fo Cherbourg” shot from above.) Under Okamoto’s direction, he had also shot Nakadai in “The Age of Assassins” the year before, a movie I would love to see, but that is unavailable.
The movies in the Criterion set of 1960s Rebel Samurai movies (that also Kobayashi’s masterful “Samurai Rebellion” with Mifune and Nakadai, Shinoda’s “Samurai Spy,” and Gosha’s “Sword of the Beast”) have reasonable subtitles and good transfers (with very black blacks), but lack special features, which is uncharacteristic of Criterion (though the earlier Kurosawa boxed set of four samurai movies was also light on extras). Making the great and little known movie available (and other movies by Okamoto) still deserves gratitude and praise, however.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray