“Kill or be killed – either would just leave an unpleasant aftertaste.”
Two men happen to meet at a small town. One is Tabata (Etsushi Takahashi), an aspiring samurai; the other is Genta (Tatsuya Nakadai), a ronin. Their meeting here (as are their many future meetings) is fortuitous but their paths are convoluted, yet conjoined. Two months prior, there was a riot in the town and a yakuza boss named Masaraga was executed. The town is now deserted except for Busuke, a former member of the clan who still remains (often ineffectively) loyal to his fallen comrades. A samurai named Tetsutaro soon enters the town. He is accompanied by a band of six others whose mission is to assassinate Chief Vassal Mizoguchi in hopes of quelling the corruption amongst the Chamberlains. Another member of Tetsutaro’s band, Shinroku the messenger, arrives and delivers Chamberlain Ayuzawa’s noncommittal blessing about the proceedings (“He didn’t say to kill him or not to kill him. He depends on the strength of young men to set things right”). The scheme however is a plot puppeteered by Ayuzawa to have Mizoguchi, the seven assassins, and their assassins (a band led by a samurai named Jurota) killed.
Long story short, Mizoguchi is thoroughly assassinated and the band of rogues reunite at an unused guard tower located on Mount Toride. Tabata misses all of this action however as he sets off to find Ayuzawa’s dojo and become a samurai. Tabata impresses Ayuzawa with his undisciplined yet powerful technique and is recruited. This, of course, sets him at odds against Genta who has joined the plight of the seven rogues. The somnambular Chamberlain Moriuchi is easily captured by Ayuzawa and so the plan is set in motion. Tetsutaro’s men are fully informed of Ayuzawa’s deception (though not fully comprehending) and salivate for revenge, and then there is Jurota. He is the most skilled of Ayuzawa’s samurai and is driven by the desire to have his girlfriend (a prostitute named Oyo) all to himself (this requires money however). All players involved now are single-mindedly compelled to kill each other – a horrendous state of affairs.
One of the most interesting parts of the film is the relationship between Genta and Tabata and how their separate (but often united) actions are motivated by differing values. There is also the element of Chino, the fiancé of Tetsutaro, desired by…practically everyone else. And there is Jurota’s woman, Oyo, who desperately needs to escape the brothel life. It is these characters and their impulsive actions that drive the plot forward. The only character able to remain objective is the cool, collected Genta played flawlessly by Takadai; truly one of the roles he was born to play, a genuinely versatile actor. Throughout the film, Genta is compared numerous times to a cat and between Takadai’s big expressive eyes and his Yojimbo-like manipulation of the characters (the screenplay is based on the same material as Kurosawa’s Sanjuro) it’s a pretty apt description. Takahashi as Tabata is kind-hearted and spirited but young and inexperienced. It is apparent however that without his often bumbling assistance, the film would have ended much differently and been much darker.
Kiru is a proper study of the American western (and what better interpreter than Okamoto?) both in the theatrics of its cinematography and the abruptness of the editing; not to mention the wonderful Morricone-esque soundtrack by Masaru Sato! The very atmosphere of the film is palpable; the dust storms, the blinding sun, the torrential rain. The beginning of the film is like something straight out of a Howard Hawk’s western; that, juxtaposed with the modernistic cuts and smoothly flowing plot has the film just bleeding atmosphere. Okamoto is one of the great connoisseurs of cinema, having crafted so many unique and finely-honed films. This is certainly one of his best: a conglomeration of technical prowess, experimentation, and exceptional writing.