Sword of Bureaucracy
Zack Davisson | Seattle, WA, USA | 01/09/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Idealism. Patriotism. Loyalty. These are powerful tools that the corrupt and cunning can use to manipulate the naive and willing. Thinking that they are working for the greater good, it can come as a cruel surprise that the innocent foot soldier is only a pawn-sacrifice in a greater game of personal gain and self-advancement. However, sometimes the pawn is not willing to be sacrificed.
That is the theme of Gosha Hideo's "Sword of the Beast" ("Kedamono no Ken") . Gennosuke, a minor clan warrior, is tricked, under the banner of "reform," into assassinating a high-ranking minister. He has been promised position and prestige for his bold act. Instead, his sponsor soon turns on him, claiming no knowledge of the plot and demands Gennosuke's death. Realizing his "samurai honor" is a house of cards, he flees into the wilderness, determined to become a beast, living only for himself. Pursued by the murdered man's daughter and her fiance, he scrambles only to live, refusing to play his role and lay down and die. Encountering Yamane, another idealistic samurai who is being played the fool by another clan, he is determined to enlighten Yamane and his pretty wife before they too become beasts, abandoned and betrayed.
Gosha's second film, after his excellent debut in "Three Outlaw Samurai," he continues the same themes of the juxtaposition of idealism and harsh reality, and how loyalty and service to a greater good are shallow hopes, used to enslave those stupid enough to believe in them, serving only to gain wealth and status for the leaders. It is a dismal, depressing viewpoint, but an understandable exploration in light of Japan's history and personal encounters with manipulative military leaders.
"Sword of the Beast" is not a masterpiece of the samurai genre, nor is it Ghosha's best film. (That honor would go to "Tenchu!"). Criterion has put out a bare-boned DVD, with no extra features to speak of, but with a beautiful picture and sound.
But the swordplay is excellent, the themes engaging, and "Sword of the Beast" is a great flick overall. With a length of only 85 minutes, it is a short, brutal story suiting the bestial nature of the title."
"We ARE connected...because I will see you in Hell!"
Lawrance M. Bernabo | The Zenith City, Duluth, Minnesota | 11/08/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"When we first meet Gennosuke Yuuki (Mikijiro Hira) at the start of "Sword of the Beast" ("Kedamono no ken"), the samurai of the Enshu Kakegaw clan has just killed Counselor Kenmotsu Yamaoka and is in the process of fleeing to his home province. Kenmotsu's only daughter, Misa (Toshie Kimura), along with her fiancé, Daizaburo Torio (Kantaro Suga), immediately set off in pursuit. Gundayu Katori, master swordsman of the clan, and four of his best men were sent along to assist them. The year is 1857, after the arrival of Commodore Perry's fleet, and the nation faces inevitable reform. But staying alive is Gennosuke's only goal. His pursuers disparage him for being a coward by running away, but Gennosuke would rather sacrifice his pride than his life.
The problem is that as he flees Gennosuke meets up with this shady fellow who knows where to find gold on land owned by the Shogun near Mount Shirane. Also after the gold are a gang of bandits and the samurai Jurota Yamane (Go Kato), who is being aided and abetted by his wife. What is set up is a sword fight between Gennosuke and Jurota, but when Gennosuke saves Jurota's wife from the bandits that changes the dynamics of the situation. Meanwhile, everybody is making their way to the mountain for the big showdown, and while this film was originally released in the United States as "Samurai Gold Seekers," the title "Sword of the Beast" proves to be much more accurate.
Director Hideo Gosha ("Yokiro") and his co-writer Eizaburo Shiba come up with a more complicated scenario than we usually find in these samurai movies. Although Gennosuke is the central character, it is Jurota whose life is the subject of flashbacks to explain his problems and motivations. Daizaburo is pursuing Gennosuke, but there are obvious parallels behind his life with Misa with those of Jurota and his wife. The problem with the story is that at the end when everything comes together the payoff does not meet our expectations, which is why I ended up rounding down on this one. Although I love Gennosuke's final words to the counselor, it is ironically insightful that his justification has nothing to do with the machinations of everyone involved but his assumed place in the afterlife.
I like the way Gosha shoots several of the swordfights in this black & white film, which is to set up a stationary camera and have the action move away. From the perspective today of films with hand-held cameras and excessive cutting during the action scenes, it is so refreshing to actually be able to see what is going on. Gosha also favors the ballet of swordplay without resorting to blood sprays and such excesses. As an example of Japan's post-war cinema this 1965 film emphasizes the nobility of the lower samurai versus the corruption of the superiors, brought home by a scene in which their sense of honor compels some of the samurai to refuse to obey orders, evincing a sense of indignation that you usually do not see if these films. The reforms hinted at by the opening scene are not central to the story, but they are a strong undercurrent to the morality of the film.
"Sword of the Beast" is part of the "Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics" collector's set, which also includes Masahiro Shinoda's "Samurai Spy," Masaki Kobayshi's "Samurai Rebellion" with Toshiro Mifune, and Kihachi Okamoto's Italian western-influenced "Kill!" The films are available separately or as a set, but even if this one proves to be the least impressive of the quartet, this is an excellent set of samurai films that most fans of the genre have never seen. If you are not convinced that there is an entire world of "jidai-geki" films out there beyond those of Akira Kurosawa, this collection will definitely persuade you. It is just surprising for a Criterion Collection disc that there are absolutely no extras on this DVD, unless you think chapters and subtitle options count as something special."
Melodrama samurai style, and a cynical look at honor and loy
C. O. DeRiemer | San Antonio, Texas, USA | 08/09/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Samurai melodrama, and not bad. Gennosuke Yuki (Mikijiro Hira) is a young, low-ranking samurai who is ambitious and wants to reform his clan. It's 1857 and Perry's black ships have already had an impact on feudal Japan just by sailing into Tokyo Bay four years earlier. Gennosuke's naivety and ambition lead him to kill his clan's counselor. He had put his trust in a clan leader who had implied this was needed, but he has been betrayed. Now he's a hunted ronin with a price on his head, pursued by Misa, the vengeful daughter of the murdered counselor, and her betrothed, plus a small retinue of clan warriors and a master swordsman. "To hell with name and pride," he says. "I'll run and never stop."
After more betrayals and deadly sword fights, he encounters Jurota Yamane (Go Kato) and Taka (Shima Iwashita), a married couple who are illicitly panning gold from the Shogun's mine for their own clan. At first he is determined to take the gold from the man, an ambitious samurai like he was who has put his trust in his clan leaders. "I can't afford to to live by my conscience," Gennosuke says. "My opponent is a warrior, it's true. But it's up to me whether I defeat him and take his gold, or am defeated by him and left to die a dog's death in the hills." Bandits and the ruthless intentions of an advisor and his men from the other clan make Gennosuke find he hasn't entirely lost his sense of honor. At one point Taka tells him, "I want to become a beast like you," but she finds that, ultimately, although her husband and Gennosuke are both flawed, they make sacrifices that redeem themselves.
In other hands, this might have been high drama with moral overtones. What we have, in my view, is effective melodrama which is satisfying to watch. I wouldn't consider Mikijiro Hira a compelling actor. He's good looking in a Hollywood kind of way, but for me he just can't quite bring the anguish over the line. Still, he does a competent job, and so do the other actors. For me, Go Kato brought a lot of complexity to his role, agonizing twice in having to choose between the gold and his wife. His choice the first time reveals weakness; the second time, love and strength.
The black-and-white movie is photographed with some great sequences, including a near-fatal romantic encounter in a chest-high field of grain that opens the film. There's also lots of rushing and running through dappled woods. In fact, the whole movie is really, one way or another, centered on the ever-present pursuit of Gennosuke, with his enemies, or those who become his enemies, getting closer and closer. The swordplay is frequent enough for those who like flash-and-slash action, but it's low-key enough not to turn the movie into just another grade B samurai flick so beloved by both Japanese and American audiences. Fatal slashes are implied, not shown, and there are no flying heads or arms.
Sword of the Beast, for all the melodrama, is in my view a cynical look at such concepts as loyalty, duty and honor. "Look at her, the true daughter of a samurai," says Gennosuke at one point after one of the women has been abducted by the bandits. He finds her by the side of a stream adjusting her torn kimono. "She's been violated, yet she still remembers her appearance." Ah, the code of conduct expected of the superior classes. I don't think Hideo Gosha meant this statement with any particular admiration.
The DVD from Criterion looks just fine. There are no extras. The case includes a printed essay by a fellow named Patrick Macias, who is identified as a commentator on Japanese film. The DVD is part of Criterion's four-film collection, Rebel Samurai. It can be bought separately."
Watching ones own back
Daitokuji31 | Black Glass | 07/21/2006
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Director: Gosha Hideo
Duration: 85 Minutes
Near the end of the Edo Period and on the eve of the Meiji Restoration Japan was a country entrenched in Civil War. Conservative factions supporting the Shogunate and Revisionist factions supporting the Emperor fought each other for the future of the country. Like most revolutionists, Yuuki Gennosuke was quite young and full of ideals when he slew a conservative counselor. However, instead of receiving a higher position after his daring deed, Gennosuke is forced to become a bandit and is pursued by the daughter and son-in-law of the slain counselor.
With only his swords and his wits to protect him, Gennosuke continuously flees his pursuers to keep alive. Having abandoned the samurai code, Gennosuke incorporates every method to save his own skin. However, because his pursuers have been granted permission to seek a vendetta against him, vendettas were only official if given government approval, they can also use whatever means necessary to seek their revenge. Heading deeper into the wilderness, Gennosuke learns from a petty vagabond that a nearby mountain is covered in gold. Having to support himself for his life on the run, Gennosuke agrees to help the man acquire some gold. However, it is illegal to search for gold on the mountain and also Gennosuke and his partner are not the only two on the mountain searching for gold...
Part of the Criterion Collection's Rebel Samurai Collection, The Sword of the Beast takes the samurai ethics displayed in such classics like Inagaki Hiroshi's Miyamoto Musashi and turns it on its head. Loyalty to friends and loved ones is sacrificed for wealth and in one case with Jurota and his wife Taka the pact of marriage is of lower worth than gold. Full of action and several well done swordfights, Sword of the Beast is not to be missed by fans of samurai cinema, however, for the common viewer Kobayashi Masaaki's Hara-kiri or the samurai films of Kurosawa Akira would be a better place to start.