Take a piece of Akira Kurosawa, blend in a big portion of Sergio Leone, then add a little of Mel Brooks on Xanax and you'll have an idea of one of the oddest and most amusing examples of chanbara satire. The "sword-fighting movies" from Japan nearly collapsed under the weight of cliches, just as American "gun-fighting" westerns nearly bit the dust in the U.S. Kihachi Okamoto piles on the cliches in this tale taken from the same source material as Sanjuro. While elements of the plot are described, it's not the plot that's too important, but what Okamoto does with it. You might have a hard time afterwards watching some of those popular Italian westerns with a straight face (or even some of Kurosawa's eastern westerns).
Two ragged men, one a former samurai, Genta (Tatsuya Nakadai), who is disillusioned and has become a wandering yakuza, and the other, Hanji (Etsushi Takahashi), a farmer who wants to become a samurai, meet by chance in a dusty, decaying village. The two suddenly find themselves in the midst of corruption, betrayal and assassination. They wind up fighting rival gangs and, sometimes, each other. Along the way we encounter the loving cliches of samurai flicks as well as the loving cliches from Italian westerns...all that running back and forth, noble love, beatings, the really evil villain...as well as pratfalls, a monk who seems to be channeling William Hickey, a flying finger that lands on the ground right in front of the camera and probably the scrawniest chicken ever to have a major role in the movies.
The year is 1833 when Japan's rigid class system was decaying. Tatsuya Nakadai as Genta is marvelous as the quizzical and disillusioned ex-samurai who long ago had enough of the posturing and false honor of his class. He has no intention of being a hero, yet he finds himself against his better judgment being drawn into a clan battle between corruption on one side and naivety on the other. He also is a realist. "Kill or be killed," he says at one point, "either would leave an unpleasant aftertaste." Almost as good is Etsushi Takahashi as Hanji. He may only be a farmer, but Hanji is tired of that back-breaking work. He sold his land and bought a samurai's outfit with the two swords. If he can become a samurai, he knows honor will be close behind. Hanji is energetic and impressed with titles. When the two meet, they make an odd-couple team, even if at a various times Hanji is determined to stick a sword through Genta's chest.
Two-thirds of the way through the movie, however, Okamoto lets the cliches regain their rightful power. The laughs are few and far between as battles are fought between muskets and swords (the swords lose), a good man dies and a fight to the death takes place between Genta and an evil usurper. We're left with the carnage of dead samurai, caused by betrayal and suspicion..and with Genta's comment to Hanji, "Now do you understand what samurai are like?"
Wait, there's more. This is a satire, after all. Our last view is of the two men, one a realist and the other now also a realist, leaving the village. They're followed by the admiring young women of the town's one pleasure house, all determined to journey with them. That leaves the scrawny chicken, strutting around and pecking in the dust, unimpressed with all that has just occurred.
This Criterion DVD is part of the Rebel Samurai four-movie set. It can be bought separately. There are no extras to speak of except for an overblown written essay on the movie that comes in the case.