This is another selection from Criterion's Rebel Samurai collection. Samurai Spy is the last one I still need to see.
What a fun film! I didn't realize until it was over that it was based on the same story that Kurosawa adapted for Sanjuro. As I was watching, some similarities did occur to me (scruffy-but-skilled protagonist with disdain for traditional samurai life; small group of samurai hiding out from corrupt official), but it is otherwise (and even in those similarities) a completely different story.
The basic plot concerns a group of samurai who assassinate a corrupt official and then go into hiding, awaiting the arrival of the good official from the north who will come set everything right. As they are waiting, another corrupt official is trying to hunt them down. The two main characters come into town looking for work and food, and become involved on opposite sides.
Tatsuya Nakadai plays the experienced and world weary Genta, and it's my favorite role of his yet. He's such an affable decent fellow, and his interactions with Hanjiro (Etsushi Takahashi) make up a large part of the charm of the movie. It's also very different from his role in Sanjuro, which is also very different from that in Yojimbo (that guy is in just about every samurai movie). Hanjiro is an aspiring samurai, a former farmer whose years of toil have made him very strong. He's not the brightest bulb, but he's enthusiastic and determined, despite Genta's constant warnings that samurai aren't all that great. The opening scene where the two of them meet in a desolate town, looking for food, is a perfect introduction that sets up the relationship and tone for the rest of the movie.
It's a very funny movie, but it's black comedy to be sure. One of the earliest gags involves the image of a townsperson who has hanged herself. It's played for a laugh, and it works, but that's pretty dark. Like Sanjuro, Kill! doesn't care for the samurai values and has a good time deconstructing them.
Kill! also has a great soundtrack. Most memorable is the spaghetti western styled guitar from the beginning of the film.
Like the better spaghetti westerns, the movie features some great compositions, cuts, and editing. And a great score featuring a Morricone-esque guitar number at the beginning. And some great action (Genta knows his sword-play).
If you're interested in a black and white samurai movie that isn't all stern-faces and yelling, check this one out. This is one I'd show friends who were not up for a "serious" samurai film.