Kill!, the title of Kihachi Okamoto's 1968 National Lampoon samurai spoof, might be a better fit for his anti-Kurosawa slashfest, predating Peckinpah's Wild Bunch apocalypse while instilling barbarism with karmatic intimations. It's no accident that the killing-machine protagonist Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai) first materializes slaying an aged pilgrim kneeling by a Buddha figure, though, in the first of the film's contemplations of his violence, the killing is perversely staged as an answered prayer. Angel of death, or just plain death incarnate? Zombified stare only occasionally broken by anxious twitch, Nakadai's dead-eyed warrior trails the collapse of the Shogunate rule in 1860s Japan, leaving a path of diced bodies, orphaned girls who end up in courtesan houses, an opponent's wife raped as a mill's wooden pistons pound the foreground. "Your cruelty doesn't stop with your sword. It seems to have seeped into your mind and body," wheezes an expiring patriarch to the exterminator he's whelped, implacable decimating technique but moral insides left out. The very concept of honor in (and out of) sword warfare snowballs absurdist tendencies as the narrative branches out, despite the ambiguous view of Kaizan Nakazato's original 1913 novel (published as a serial over three decades) and the more conventionally heroic figures of Toshiro Mifune's noble teacher and Yuzo Kayama's callow young fencer -- Kurosawa alumni, significantly. In fact, just as Okamoto's striking widescreen design often mimics the sensei's three-fold rectangles, so is the film bent on imploding his code of masculine-warrior ethic by pushing it past the bursting point. In that sense, its holocaustic denouement, a surreal demolition job with Nakadai furiously hacking at voices, shadows and spectral enemies, is a kiss-off to the genre's moral coherence in the context of budding '60s nihilism, and a cataract of brutality that builds until it short-circuits into a stunted freeze-frame. With Michiyo Aratama, Yoko Naito, Tadao Nakaramu, and Ichiro Nishimura. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce