Title: Sword of the Beast (Kedamono no ken)
Release Date: 1965
Length: 85 minutes
Director: Hideo Gosha
Starring: Mikijiro Hira, Go Kato, Shima Iwashita
Sword of the Beast is an interesting film and rather subtle in some ways. The broader strokes of the plot are a bit obvious at times, but the film’s construction is clever and well-executed. It also, for anyone instinctively expecting Hays Code restraint in a black and white film, repeatedly surprises by its willingness to “go there”. Admittedly, this is more in the subject matter than in explicit depiction on screen, but it still felt surprising to me.
Gennosuke is a samurai on the run. The film opens with this and only explains a little of why in a voiceover, freeze-frame combo that only happens this once. He’s killed a clan official and is being pursued by the man’s daughter, her fianceé, the clan sword master, and four mooks. He’s been on the run, staying one jump ahead for some time.
After bailing out a small-time hood running an underground dice game, they team up to poach gold from a nearby mountain owned by the shogun. The problem isn’t just that this is a crime punishable by death, but also that they find a skilled samurai and his wife established there who already have a fortune in gold stashed away. And the three bandits, the ones who failed to rob the dice game when our outlaw samurai Gennosuke intervened, they’ve decided to make a play for the gold as well. The three sides clash and the question is raised: who is willing to forego his humanity in the pursuit of wealth? Who will wield the sword of the beast?
As tensions mount, the authorities and the vendetta-holders close in, and more is slowly revealed about how Gennosuke came to be here in a series of well-integrated flashbacks. Moreover, these interludes are shown as reflections spurred by his present circumstances and give key insight into his choices and actions.
This is not a film to shy away from the dark side of what people are capable. There are some very cold-blooded murders as well as the usual samurai duels. There are also a couple rapes, not graphically depicted, but their brutality is implied so as to leave you without any doubt of the intense cruelty. Gosha has made a thoughtful film about desire and betrayal, and how far people are willing to go, how far is too far to get what one desires, and what happens when one becomes consumed with a singular idea.