Kill! is one of those movies which cannot be properly appreciated without first having seen a number of other films in the same genre. It’s not exactly a parody of the chanbara/samurai films but it pokes fun at the tropes: the wandering ronin, the farmer out to become a samurai, a kidnapped chamberlain, the idealist samurai out to right the corruption of their clan, the fact that there’s seven of them…
Kill! Is based on the same story Sanjuro is* and I feel like some kind of heretic saying this, but it’s better than Sanjuro. I have no idea what the original story is like but Sanjuro (the character) is shoehorned into it. He doesn’t fit well.
*(Wikipedia and Infogalactic give a varying assortment of stories which the movie could have been based on but generally agree that a) whatever it was was written by Shugoro Yamamoto and b) was the same source as for the story of Sanjuro. When I googled one of the possible sources “Peaceful Days”, the various sites talking about couldn’t agree if it were a novel or a short story. The Criterion Collect version of Sanjuro says it’s “Peaceful Days” and a novel so I’m going to assume they’re correct.)
In Kill! a ronin, Hanjiro, wanders into the beginning of the film in a sequence reminiscent of the opening of Yojimbo. A desolate windy place. A town clearly wrecked with strife. He bumps into another wanderer, Genta, a yakuza. Neither of these characters is exactly what they profess to be.
The humor from the outset is both aburd and exceedingly black. Hanjiro is horrified to find the woman in the inn/restaurant has hung herself. He and Genta, miserable and hungry, then proceed, crawling in the dusty street, to stalk a straggly chicken. The effect of the two men’s eyes lighting on the pathetic bird invokes something almost like cartoon characters looking at something and seeing a drumstick.
Their potential dinner is frightened away by a samurai striding down the street. The difference between our two heroes become immediately apparent when Hanjiro, getting his hands on the samurai’s food, stuffs his face while Genta, regretfully, tries to give it back.
Genta is the Sanjuro-esque character here. He’s the clever schemer pretending to help one side while serving the other. (It’s kind of funny for Tatsuya Nakadai to play this when he was also one of the villains in Sanjuro.) He immediately recognizes the group of samurai they’ve bumped into is heading for trouble and tries to help. But where Sanjuro is gruff and brash, Genta is quiet and mild. He’s willing to simply advise and then sit and play cards with the priest while the samurai work things out for themselves… at least until it comes obvious that they can’t.
And that’s really why Kill! is superior to Sanjuro. Sanjuro spends most of the movie tripping over the other samurai. They screw his schemes up, stopping him from really being able to put them fully into play. In Yojimbo, when a scheme went wrong it was because of the enemies; in Sanjuro, it’s because of the allies. It’s missing the element of a clever, suspenseful back and forth between hero and foe. Additionally there’s never a real sense that Sanjuro is in much danger. Kill! has all that. Genta is able to act without allies getting in his way. He has a rather more subtle style, more inclined to have people think he’s not nearly as skilled as he is. He slips in and out learning things from the enemy, doing a little sabotage, and killing when he must. When his scheme goes wrong, he needs to be rescued or he’s gonna be dead.
Which is where Hanjiro comes in. In some ways a buffoon, he provides a lot of humor but the wannabe samurai has his heart in the right place. When it comes down to it, he’s willing to sacrifice his hard sought after dream.
There’s a weird almost contradictory theme running through the movie: samurai are not the amazing, noble, trustworthy people they’re set up to be. The villainous samurai are corrupt traitors and liars, willing to trick and murder their underlings. Genta tries repeatedly to persuade Hanjiro that samurai are no good. But at the same time the most honorable, heroic characters are samurai.
Kill! succeeds in being a better movie all around than Sanjuro is. There’s some obvious similarities but it’s a very different movie. Blackly funny, exciting, and full of action, it’s well worth a watch.