Sword of the Beast

Title: Sword of the Beast
Original Title: Kedamono no ken
Rating : 4/5
Genre: Action, Drama
Starring: Mikijiro Hira, Gô Katô, Shima Iwashita
Director: Hideo Gosha
Language: Japanese
Release Date: 1965

Minister: Wait! We're not connected at all. Why kill me?
Yuuki Gennosuke: No, we are connected, because I'll see you in hell!

There seems to be no shortage of Japanese films set in the feudal era, and it was a complex time with events coming thick and fast; clans ruling the lands constantly fighting with one another, ronin wandering the streets and bandits making a nuisance out of themselves, and yet throughout it all are the samurai themselves. Courageous and holding their honour up high, fighting for the betterment of their clan with complete self-sacrifice, and never doing anything that would harm an innocent life. It is this erroneous dramatisation that made this film sound so intriguing, for here it is clearly not so black and white. When found amidst corruption, treated as little more than slaves to do the bidding of their master or die trying, trying to navigate a system where the power and status is held by virtue of inheritance, it is the samurai who dream of a reform that allows them the opportunity to prove themselves and they must constantly question whether their actions are that of a noble samurai or simply that of a beasts.

When Gennosuke, a retainer constantly put down by the counsellor in his charge finally revolts in the hope of climbing the societal ladder, the result results in the death of his master. Quickly realising his solitude in his revolt for reform he escapes the clutches of the other samurai and heads to the mountains in the hope of living as a ronin in the wilderness, but Misa, the counsellors daughter, is not to make life easy for him. Swearing a vendetta she travels with fiancée and once Gennosuke's friend Daizaburo, taking with them the best sword under their command to the mountains and hunt him down like the wild beast he's been forced to become. Gennosuke, teaming up with a local thief, travels high up in the mountains in the hope of panning for gold in the clans territory – a crime punishable by death – but they soon happen upon Yamane and his wife, Taka, working for a rival clan who had similar ideas...

Whilst the action does little to detract from the story, it is not for this that you should watch this film, there are plenty of others that deliver on that front. It is for the innate complexity of the situation, and how quickly what were once clear relationships can become muddled when you understand the nature of the other person, their desires, and how strongly it often conflicts with the circumstances they find themselves pressured into. And as we witness our protagonist, Gennosuke, constantly question his own beastly nature we call into question those that surround him and realise that in this world where honour is everything, deep down it is only him who is not a beast; the corrupt counsellors willing to kill others to advance their own careers, the bandits and thieves striving to take what isn't theirs, the samurai who are ordered to fetch and must obey or the three hunters driven by the counsellors daughter's blind instinctive rage and must not go against the grain for fear of retribution.

I was always suspicious of how the feudal era of Japan has been portrayed in more serious dramatic adaptations, conscious of how honourable an era where hara-kiri is common place and war between clans is the normal state of affairs could genuinely be. This is certainly not the period piece that would entice everyone, and I don't mean that in a rather derogatory manner implying that the fantastical illusion of the era is something that many wouldn't want shattered, but rather that as we steadily uncover more details about our characters past we learn that nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Neither as well known as the “Lone Wolf and Cub” saga, nor revered as much the work of Kurosawa, Gosha has delivered a little known classic that lies more than a shade closer to the truth, and it is for this lesson in humanity that it should be remembered.


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