With sword in hand, Appellate Judge Dan Mancini dissects this samurai flick.
Our review of Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics: Criterion Collection, published November 1st, 2005, is also available.
"To hell with name and pride! I'll run and never stop!"—Gennosuke
[Editor's Note: This review is part of a full examination of Criterion's Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics boxed set.]
With its opening shots of the dirty feet of ronin Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira, Rampo), followed by his randy conversation with a slatternly whore, followed immediately by the first of the film's many sword fights—all of it backed by a score that mixes the timbre of the shamisen with hep cat clarinet and bongos—it's obvious from the get-go that Sword of the Beast is a pure pulp cocktail of past and present.
Facts of the Case
Early in the film, we learn by way of voice-over that Gennosuke is on the run from his clan, the Enshu Kakegawa, for killing one of its counselors. As Gennosuke heads for his home province, he's pursued by the counselor's daughter, Misa, and her fiancé, Daizaburo, as well as master swordsman Gundayu Katori and a quartet of his retainers.
Gennosuke eventually falls in with a reprobate who knows where to find gold in the waters surrounding nearby Mount Shirane, which is owned by the Shogun. A trio of gambling rogues is also out to illegally pan the riches, but a deadly samurai named Jurota Yamane (Go Kato, Samurai Rebellion) and his wife are already working the mountain, stealing from the Shogun in order to strengthen their clan. As Gennosuke moves upriver, determined to have the gold, he knows it means a face-off with Jurota. But when he saves Jurota's wife from the bandits, a shaky alliance is formed between the men. Our hero's situation is dire, however, as Misa's search party and Jurota's clan converge on the mountain.
Director Hideo Gosha (Three Outlaw Samurai) isn't among the top-tier of Japanese directors, but he was a fine genre filmmaker, and Sword of the Beast is tightly constructed and a lot of fun. The picture's most notable structural attribute is the hard parallel drawn between rivals Gennosuke and Jurota. The latter's illegal mining of the Shogun's gold on behalf of his clan provides Gosha an excuse to revisit Gennosuke's past. In flashback, we learn he was used and betrayed by his superiors during a reform plot in his clan. His experience gives him insight into Jurota's plight, and eventually the rivals become wary allies. Gosha handles this rigid, calculated narrative structure so precisely that it feels organic and character-driven.
The journeyman director proves adept at manipulating narrative time, too. There's a quiet scene near the beginning of the film in which Gennosuke is holed up at an inn while his pursuers close in on him. Gosha's shooting and cutting is delicate and precise. He builds tension deliberately, and with much patience, paying the scene off at just the right moment. One takes such scenes for granted in a swashbuckling action-adventure, but Gosha deserves credit for his handling. Action sequences (and the scenes building toward them) rely on sound construction, and can easily go wrong in the hands of a filmmaker who doesn't know what he's doing. Throughout Sword of the Beast, Gosha makes all the right decisions.
To his credit, Gosha juggles a number of styles and storylines that coalesce satisfactorily at the foot of Mount Shirane. In addition to the slowly evolving relationship between Gennosuke and Jurota, we're given a bit of a murder mystery in the quiet ruminations of Gennosuke's longtime friend (and now pursuer), Daizaburo. He struggles to reconcile his friend's character and sense of honor with the horror of his crime. Things don't add up. Gosha's screenplay (written with Eizaburo Shiba, his collaborator on Three Outlaw Samurai) juxtaposes the Gennosuke-Jurota and Gennosuke-Daizaburo plotlines for maximum effect. Not only do the two stories allow for a slow and nonlinear revelation of Gennosuke's troubled past by way of a series of flashbacks, but they combine to emphasize the film's theme of corruption in feudal Japan. We witness cycles of low-level samurai manipulated by their superiors. Their belief in honor, duty, and loyalty are used by corrupt bureaucrats trying to secure and maintain their own power. Daizaburo's cognitive dissonance is grounded in the clash between Bushido's dictates and the incongruous behavior of a flesh and blood man he knows, respects, and loves. He comes to learn by picture's end, of course, that it was the man who deserved his trust and loyalty all along.
Sword of the Beast is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection (spine number 311) both as a stand-alone disc and as part of the four-disc Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics boxed set. According to Criterion's liner notes, the disc's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer comes directly from a 35mm fine-grain master, digitally remastered. With the exception of some minor flicker here and there, it's a solid effort. The black-and-white image is stable, offering strong detail and excellent contrast. Audio has also been restored, and is a simple but clean center-speaker presentation of the original mono track. The punchy score sounds great, with only isolated instances of distortion from the source.
The only supplement is an informative essay in the fold-out insert booklet by Patrick Macias, author of TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion.
Is Hideo Gosha's Sword of the Beast a great work of art? No. But it's a smart, well-crafted piece of pulp entertainment, and a heck of a good time.
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Scales of Justice
• Essay by Japanese Film and Culture Critic Patrick Macias
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