Saturday 19 September 2009

Sword of the Beast (1965)

Director: Hideo Gosha
Stars: Mikijiro Hira and Go Kato
Sword of the Beast sounds like a horror movie and Samurai Gold Seekers sounds like the most obvious Japanese inspiration for a spaghetti western ever, but this film, which has carried both titles, is really a deep samurai story with lush black and white cinematography. It's a chase movie to boot, one that we're thrown straight into, and the depth comes from the fact that the man being chased and those chasing him are far from stereotypical good guys and bad guys. We're in 1857, four years after Commodore Perry's Black Ships had sailed into Uraga Harbor and forced Japan to open up from their self imposed isolation from the rest of the world and the film addresses the use and abuse of the samurai code, using Perry's visit as a catalyst.

The man being chased is the forward thinker of the story, Gennosuke Yuuki by name, who realises that things must change and so petitions his Kakegawa clan to that end, but those petitions are ignored and the samurai code of utter obedience is such that he has no other recourse. After all, a samurai is blindly obedient even up to committing suicide at the word of their master, so the only way to resist is to effectively renounce everything that he stands for. So when Counselor Kenmotsu Yamaoka rejects Gennosuke's petition and orders him to be confined, he reacts by killing him.

After the opening battle scene, he tells those chasing him, 'To hell with name and pride, I'll run and never stop.' Coming to terms with this single line of dialogue is to come to terms with the film. There's selfishness in Gennosuke's actions but also inevitability. By killing the Counselor he expects to further the cause of reform but also to progress upward in rank, only to find himself instead a ronin running for his life because the honour that the samurai code epitomises is easily and casually abused by those ranked higher, like the deputy counselor who set the whole thing up for his own ends.

In the language of the title, Gennosuke has become a beast, a masterless samurai roaming the land without any purpose, yet in another sense, his actions freed him from being a beast, there to be nothing except what the every whim of his masters who run the clan make him, whether the commands lead to dishonourable acts, criminal acts or even seppuku. Those masters could easily be seen as the real beasts, willing to use the lives of their samurai in ways that have none of the honour that they cling to, but there's such a depth of grey here that a thesis could easily be written on the film.
Gennosuke's pursuers begin honourable because they follow the rules, so much so that they pay a lot of attention to precedent on how to conduct a vendetta. They're led by Kenmotsu's only daughter, Misa, and her Daizaburo Torio, and they take along a master swordsman called Gundayu Katori and four of his best men for good measure. Yet as time runs on, their numbers decrease and further events take place, their dedication to the vendetta is shaken. They find themselves paying others for assistance, something that samurai would not usually do, and in some instances end up becoming dishonourable in their own eyes.

Our hero ends up teaming up with a panhandler in the mountains, which are owned by the shogunate and so officially not free to all and sundry to search for gold. They find that another samurai, Yamane Jurota, has stolen the government's gold and is defending it against all comers, up to and including killing officers who turn up to deal with him. While they're obvious antagonists, Yamane wanting to keep the gold he's stolen and Gennusoke wanting to steal it, they're very much the same thing: of low birth and low in the ranking of samurai without much opportunity to rise, forced to commit an act that would typically be anathema to further themselves, only to find themselves betrayed by their superiors.

So there are plenty of characters here, with many similarities and contrasts, along with believable and changing motivations. It's one of the deepest samurai stories I've seen, written by Eizaburo Shiba and the film's director Hideo Gosha. Shiba had already written the three part Sword of Doom in the late fifties, though not the version I've seen, and 1964's excellent Three Outlaw Samurai, again with Gosha who was also debuting as a director. Gosha would go onto make more samurai films including two Samurai Wolf movies, but they apparently didn't work together again. Given how great both Three Outlaw Samurai and Sword of the Beast are, that's not a good thing, but I'd be interested to see more Gosha chambara, as well as his gangster films. His next, a film noir called Cash Calls Hell, looks as deep as this one.

The stories are definitely the thing, in both instances and apparently throughout Gosha's career, but the acting is solid and the action is superb. Here there's very little one on one fighting, but plenty of great and very believable melees. It's always strange to watch one man take on many with a sword but it's handled about as well here as I may ever have seen. As Gennosuke Mikijiro Hara weaves through the crowds of attacking swordsmen as if this is what he'd always done. No wonder he played in so many such films at the time, including Three Outlaw Samurai, a couple of Toshiro Mifune's Miyamoto Musashi movies and the first Zatoichi film. He was also the psychiatrist in Hiroshi Teshigahara's superb The Face of Another. He's still working today.

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