Of all the agit-pulp punctuations peppered
throughout action master Kihachi Okamoto’s anarchically exhilarating and archly self-skewering 1968 swordplay classic Kill!, one loaded battle cry from deep within the chaos of that far too little-known spaghetti eastern continues to resonate with bushido buffs today. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first—since all good samurai sagas are stuffed with spilling sheaves of backstory—a bit of setup is in order. Fans of Akira Kurosawa’s Toshiro Mifune–fueled genre classics, forgive me if you’ve heard it somewhere before. And for those who haven’t, it’s time to hide your daughters: The pitter-patter of barefoot blade runners is coming your way, with a fistful of ’60s and ’70s slice operas by idiom savants like Okamoto and Hideo Gosha, a week-long run of Masaki Kobayashi’s austerely anti-authoritarian Samurai Rebellion, and inevitable reiterations of Seven Samurai and four other Kurosawa/Mifune chambara (“swordplay”) chestnuts unfurling in Film Forum’s “Summer Samurai” series.
It’s March 1833, near the beginning of the end of the last century of the shogunate’s feudal power hold over Japan—blah, blah, blah. (Sorry, this is Kill!, not Kill Bill—though a week’s worth of samurai movies will convince you that Q.T.’s fondness for prefacing action-orgasm with endless expository foreplay has its roots in the Edo-era mud.) In the midst of a blinding dust storm, a dozen or so retainers are escorting their master’s palanquin through hostile territory: a scorched-earth ghost town where peasants were recently slaughtered during a food riot by the forces of this now approaching clan. Peeking at the procession (in a sequence of chilling gazes echoed by Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil) are assorted starving road warriors, a revenge-hungry group of seven farmers turned samurai wannabes determined to terminate the corrupt clan boss (whose name, you’ll soon note, has a very familiar ring), and a solitary drifter who wanders into this local intrigue while pursuing a chicken he’d hoped to eat for lunch. Like much else in Kill!, this drifter—played with an admixture of bug-eyed bluff and palpable body odor by versatile genre giant Tatsuya Nakadai—isn’t quite what he seems; were we in China, we’d have pegged him as a martial arts master in drunken guise.
Suddenly, the attack begins, heralded by that blood-curdling battle cry: “Die, Mizoguchi!”
Whether Okamoto or his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto (who penned eight of Kurosawa’s best-known films), intended the cinematically double-edged thrust of that death sentence or simply employed a rather traditional and most likely historically specific Japanese name remains unclear. More sharply focused is the anxiety-of-influence eagerness Okamoto evinces as he strives, and often succeeds, to out-macho the stylistic engorgements of Yojimbo and Sanjuro (based on the same novel as Kill!) with each lacerating swish pan and savage shock splice in manga-existentialist masterworks like Sword of Doom. (Sadly, Okamoto’s fondness for directing musicals was considerably narrowed by a Noh-inflected flop entitled Oh, Bomb in 1963, since even his most savage samurai films never lose their spasmodically syncopated beat.) Kurosawa, of course, had forefather issues all his own, having once complained that Japanese cinema’s best-known Mizoguchi—that tradition-tethered auteur of archaic manners whose given name was Kenji—had no flair for samurai emotion.
Indeed, Mizoguchi’s government- conscripted version of The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin (1941–1942)—conspicuous by its absence from “Summer Samurai”—hadn’t just submerged its mandate as wartime propaganda beneath some four hours of the most gloriously glacial tracking shots ever filmed; it had the temerity to render Japanese literature’s most famous samurai showdown not as explosive Kurosawan bombast, but as a whisper in the darkness of that conspicuous narrative absence we’ve come to call “offscreen.” But omissions were precisely Mizoguchi’s point, and one not lost on the likewise architecturally obsessed Kobayashi of Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion, a pair of politically astringent j idai-geki (“period tales”) that—though explosive in ways that might have startled even Kurosawa—regard feudal codes of loyalty as constructs scarcely less absurd than a castle built entirely of vestibules.
Absurdity—in both its black-and- festering and raspberry-blowing-irreverence modes—would prove as central a bargaining chip for shogunate-centered cinema as the secret life of the Shinsengumi or a samurai assassin slashing through an endless fortress of shoji screens. As Tokuzo Tanaka’s fourth installment of the blind masseur cum master swordsman series, 1963’s Zatoichi the Fugitive, giddily demonstrates, pear-shaped Zatoichi originator Shintaro Katsu hadn’t just been tap-dancing since well before Takeshi Kitano turned his character blond—he’d been at it ever since that upstart Oshima started surfing his Shochiku-financed New Wave. Eventually, however, certain absurdities prove beyond even the most invincible genre’s pale, and Hideo Gosha, the last of the samurai screen’s anti-irony holdouts, managed to take things there. Glorious though the Technicolor hell-scroll vistas and blood-speckled snow bluffs of Gosha’s Goyokin (1969) may be, the sight of granite-jowled genre vet and onetime James Bond sidekick Tetsuro Tamba—the George Kennedy of Japanese cinema—tongue-kissing a naked concubine in Bandits Vs. Samurai Squadron (1978) may be more than the genre, or its staunchest admirers, should ever have been asked to endure.