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March 29, 2012

The Best Films of Okamoto Kihachi

Okamoto Kihachi (1924-2005;岡本喜八) was born in Yonago, attended Meiji University in Tokyo, and then was drafted for the war in 1943, during the most hellish phase of the struggle. Wanting to become a film director, in 1947 he entered the Toho studios and worked as assistant for Naruse Mikio, Makino Masahiro and others. Okamoto debuted with a film of his own in 1958 and made 40 films during his lifetime. For about half of them, he wrote the scripts himself. He worked in various genres, but became most famous for his period films and his war films, both characterized by over the top violence and a cynical outlook. His earliest films were mainly noirish, hard-boiled gangster movies. His first notable film was Desperado Outpost (1959), a black comedy about the absurdities of war.

Okamoto's international reputation rests on the period films he made in the 1960s. These include the nihilistic Sword of Doom, the severe Samurai Assassin, the humorous, "spaghetti Western" Kill! and The Red Lion, a film showing that authority always ends up exploiting the weak. All these films are intensely violent.

His later films were less succesful and include some curious hybrids as Dixieland Daimyo (1986) about a group of black slaves who have drifted to Japan, and East Meets West (1995), about a samurai sent to the U.S. to prevent the signing of a treaty between both countries.

Okamoto Kihachi worked for Toho where he was constantly eclipsed by Kurosawa Akira and Kobayashi Masaki. Yet he had his own sardonic style and simple message: there is no honor in violence, he says. History is an invention of those in power. Okamoto's heroes are usually outcasts, who have rejected established social codes.

Selection of Films:
  • Desperado Outpost (Dokuritsu gurentai) (1959)
    Bitter tale of a sergeant (Sato Makoto) in Manchuria in WWII who joins a tribe of bandits after his commando has been wiped out by Chinese forces. 
  • Samurai Assassin (Samurai) (1965) 
    Film set in the "bakumatsu period" of the 1860s, about Niiro (Mifune Toshiro), a ronin who dreams of samurai status. He falls in with a group of assassins planning to kill the shogunate's councilor, unaware that the man is his own father. 
  • The Sword of Doom (Daibosatsu Toge) (1966) 
    Nakadai Tatsuya plays a sociopath samurai who is drunken with killing and goes completely berserk. Based on the novel by Nakazato Kaizan, which was filmed several times. The abrupt ending (originally a continuation was planned) in fact fits very well. 
  • Kill! (Kiru) (1968)
    Two ronin - an ex-samurai and an ex-farmer - get caught up in a local officials' complex game of murder and betrayal. Again with Nakadai Tatsuya. 
  • Red Lion (Akage) (1969) 
    Mifune plays a peasant who dreams of glory as a warrior, again in the Bakumatsu period. He is manipulated and cheated on all sides, but what strikes the viewer is the enormous energy Mifune puts in his role. And that red wig is just great!
  • Zatoichi and Yojimbo (Zatoichi to Yojinbo) (1970) 
    Katsu Shintaro as Zatoichi and Mifune Toshiro as Yojimbo face off in one of the later installments of this popular series. Perhaps not the best, but great fun all the same. Don't watch it before first seeing Kurosawa's Yojimbo and at least one or two other installments from the long Zatoichi series, or you will lack the necessary background information..
  • Rainbow Kids (Daiyukai) (1991) 
    Three crooks kidnap the richest woman in the area, but somehow kidnappers and kidnapped seem to reverse roles in this light comedy.
  • East Meets West (1995)
    Sanada Hiroyuki as a samurai trekking through the Wild West in this genre mash-up.