Review: Sword of the Beast (1965)

swordofthebeast5Director Hideo Gosha began his career as a very successful television director.  Sword of the Beast, his sophomore film, showed that he not only knew how to tell stories, but that he also had the chops for making good cinema. SOTB follows a samurai retainer named Gennosuke as he struggles to deal with the betrayal of his leader.  The higher-ranking samurai leads him to believe that the assassination of a counselor will both help the clan and pave the way for Gennosuke’s promotion.  The real result, however, is that the clan leader expels Gennosuke and takes the now-vacant position of the dead counselor. The surviving family members and former colleagues hunt Gennosuke, but he eludes them time and time again.  When he meets up with a con man on his way to poach gold off land owned by the shogunate, he joins the poor man’s quest.  They reach the gold-rich streams and find other poachers already there, hoping to squander the gold for the good of their own clan. swordofthebeast1 Gosha clearly has something to say about the blind obedience of samurai and the corrupt nature of government officials in Japan.  These themes spread through the film like a plague through a feudal village.  At first, the infection is precise and limited in scope but by the end it’s pervasive.  Almost everyone has been corrupted by a system that rewards all the wrong things.  At first, the film appears to be about Gennosuke, but it’s really about the meeting of Gennosuke and Jurota Yamane, the poacher who’s already amassed a fortune in stolen gold.  Both men are keen warriors, and both have their core values destroyed by their leaders.  In Yamane’s case, his clan has demanded that he and his wife save them by stealing the gold.  This act eventually overcomes what good is left in Yamane and makes him even doubt the loyalty of his wife.  The contrast between the two samurai is the space that Gosha uses as his crucible. Unfortunately, the story never gives us clear answers beyond Gosha’s obvious indictment of unconditional loyalty. The screenplay by Gosha and Eizaburo Shiba gets a little lost in its own convoluted plot.  There’s so much back-stabbing going on that it’s easy to forget whose side a character is on at any given moment.  This greatly reduces the impact of an otherwise excellent tale. swordofthebeast6 All the performances here are top notch but Mikijiro Hira stands out as the tormented Gennosuke.  Last seen on screen in the states as Sir Doi in Takashi Miike’s excellent remake of 13 Assassins (reviewed HERE), Hira delivers a performance that is both subtle and energized.  He also holds his own in the many fight scenes in the film. The visuals by cinematographer Toshitada Tsuchiya are beautifully rendered.  Most shots are extremely articulate and help the viewer to understand the underpinnings of the characters and situations.  I was shocked to find out that Tsuchiya only shot three films in his career, this being the last.  I was unable to find out anything else about him but I’d be interested to learn more if anyone reading this might know what happened to this talented shooter. swordofthebeast4 The other star of the film is the art direction.  It appears that the entire production was shot on location.  This couldn’t have been easy since there are plenty of scenes in the forest at night, but it certainly helps to root the film in a more realistic setting than many other movies from the same period. While the plot may lose its momentum at times, this film is an excellent example of jidaigeki films that do more than just entertain.  Highly recommended.

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