Kill!: The Criterion Collection
Satire is a curious thing. In order for it to work its magic, even the cleverest spoof requires a familiarity with its basis the victim of all the fun, so to speak. This is one reason that only the broadest, least clever satires manage to cross cultural boundaries. For instance, the jokes in Kihachi Okamoto's Kill! (1968) only seem like jokes if you've seen Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and a few Zatoichi films, at least. Luckily, even foregoing the comedy in Kill! shouldn't ruin it there's enough action, character, and story to keep it an entertaining samurai drama, if need be. The film is based, in fact, on the same story as Yojimbo: a pair of pathetic, desperate characters happen upon a wind-tossed hamlet being decimated by a conflict between rival gangs. Genta (Tetsuya Nakadai) is the prototypical cynical samurai, weary of the warrior's life. Tabata (Etsushi Takahashi) is his mirror image, an idealistic but bumbling farmer who traded his land for a bamboo sword and hopes to become a samurai himself. When each of them ends up on opposite sides of the gang war, the stage is set for plots, counterplots, and flashes of steel. Almost every component of the movie is a jab at the conventions of the swordplay genre, from the seven (wink!) samurai who seem to be opposing the local ruler for no especially good reason, to the various duplicitous chamberlains and retainers who populate samurai cinema. Holding it all together is Nakadai, whose measured, knowing performance skirts the edge of absurdism without ever slipping over it (this is in stark contrast to Takahashi, whose comic relief pratfalls will seem like the funniest parts of the picture to most Western viewers). From the audible grumblings of our heroes' bellies in the opening sequence to the mock-heroic spaghetti-western theme music to Tabata's slapstick ribaldry during a brothel visit, there's intelligent goofiness enough to make this feel like an Asian, blade-weapon-enhanced version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The Criterion Collection edition of Kill!, released as part of their "Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics" boxed set, presents the black-and-white film in a good anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. The image is somewhat grainy and high-contrast, probably from imperfect source materials. The disc includes an original theatrical trailer and teaser for the film. Keep-case.
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