Summer of the samurai

Summer of the samurai

Director Kihachi Okamoto’s 1968 film KILL! stands out from the pack at the Northwest Film Center’s ‘Sons of Samurai’ series


The stories based around classical Shogunate Japan always deal with similar themes: honor, tradition, values and class. This summer the Northwest Film Center is presenting a series of genre-defining classics culled mainly from the golden age of samurai cinema in the 1960s. Among the films being shown are Harakiri, Bandits vs. Samurai Squadron, Samurai Saga, Sword of Doom, Three Outlaw Samurai and this week’s KILL!

KILL! tells the story of two different men who are trying to find their way through the complicated system of Shogunate Japan. The first man, Hanjiro, is a former farmer trying to break the usual class guidelines of the samurai. Not wanting to remain a peasant all of his life, he has sold his farm for a sword – in his mind the only thing separating him from the samurai he hopes to become. Genta, the other main character, is a disgraced former samurai who decides to live a different life after learning that the samurai order is no nobler than the criminals they fight.

Together these two characters witness the assassination of a high-ranking official by seven reform-minded samurai. The two become involved, though, because the man in charge of those assassins turns on them in an effort to solidify his political power. After that turn of events, both Genta and Hanjiro take their own paths to helping the seven rebels holed up in a mountain fortress. Genta uses his knowledge of the samurai order to cleverly support and maneuver the situation in favor of the rebels. Hanjiro blunders his way through the story, oblivious to what is really going on, but in the end helps the rebels in his own simple way.

What sets KILL! apart from other samurai movies of the same generation is the element of black comedy that is present throughout the movie. Comedic lines and scenes appear often, such as when a group of samurai are in a brothel and break into an odd musical number. This scene also has Hanjiro looking for a woman who “smells like the earth.” The comedic portions are used to foreground the truth that is evident to Genta from the beginning: samurai are really no better, morally speaking, than anyone else in the society around them.

Another interesting aspect to KILL! is the obvious influence of spaghetti westerns – an influence not seen in many other samurai films. This is evident in the soundtrack and location shots. The town is barren and desert-like, where a war has just taken place between a gang and clan officials.

Overall, KILL! has a lot going for it. The characters and acting of the two leads are especially strong, each bringing different and interesting perspectives to the same story. The action and movement filmed in KILL! is also a strong point. Short immediate bursts of stylized violence help to move the story along, while the action and dialogue between the many characters never becomes tiring. This fine balance of action and plot plays an important role in making KILL! a worthwhile movie to see.

KILL! is playing at the Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium on July 6 at 7 p.m. and July 7 at 9 p.m.