Sword of the Beast (Kedamono no ken) [DVD]
Director : Hideo Gosha
Screenplay : Hideo Gosha & Eizaburo Shiba
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1965
Stars : Mikijiro Hira (Yuuki Gennosuke), Go Kato (Jurata Yamane), Shima Iwashita (Taka), Toshie Kimura (Misa), Kantaro Suga (Daizaburo), Yôko Mihara (Osen), Kunie Tanaka (Tanji), Eijirô Tono (Minister)
When we first meet Yuuki Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira), the hero of Hideo Gosha’s Sword of the Beast (Kedamono no ken), he appears to be a simple criminal on the lam, hiding out in the dirt of a grassy field while his pursuers track him down. Yet, as we soon learn via flashback, Gennosuke is not a common hood, but rather a once noble samurai who killed his master in a failed attempt to reform his corrupt clan. The master’s daughter, Misa (Toshie Kimura), and her fiancée, Daizaburo (Kantaro Suga), have sworn a vendetta against him and hunt him mercilessly, ensuring that his life is one of constant running.
Sword of the Beast takes place in 1857, a scant 10 years before the Meiji Emperor abolished the samurai system in Japan, effectively ending a military legacy centuries old. This, among other things, aligns the film in an interesting way with American Westerns of the 1960s, which also tended to take place at the end of an era in which encroaching modernization was making obsolete the ways of the past (see Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch for the exemplar of such films). Sword of the Beast is about the end of a way of life, with men like Gennosuke clinging desperately to their sense of honor even as the very system that defines that honor crumbles around them. The samurai system as depicted here has become largely wicked and corrupt, with masters grabbing for power and exploiting those below them. At any other time, Gennosuke’s assassination of his master would have been an act of utter betrayal, but here it is the desperate act of a man who genuinely wants to see a better world.
If there is an enemy in Sword of the Beast, it is the system itself, which crushes the very individuals who attempt to serve it (in this way, it is a quintessentially ’60s film). In addition to Gennosuke, who is forced to be a wandering ronin (a masterless samurari), a metaphorical “beast” in the wilderness, we see other samurai who are also betrayed by that which they honor. We see this particularly in Jurata Yamane (Go Kato), a low-level samurai who pans gold in the mountains with his wife, Taka (Shima Iwashita), in the hopes of moving up the hierarchy in his clan. However, like Gennosuke, there is no reward at the end of his travails, only defeat and betrayal.
Sword of the Beast was cowritten and directed by Hideo Gosha, a legendary Japanese filmmaker who got his start in television in the early 1960s with a series appropriately titled Three Outlaw Samurai, the 1964 film version of which was his directorial debut. Sword of the Beast was his sophomore effort, and while it isn’t as finely polished as some other films of its genre, it has an intensity and willfulness that makes it instantly engaging. Gosha, following the path blazed by other filmmakers such as Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi, drops the heavily mannered style that characterized most Japanese period films prior to the 1950s and instead invests in his characters’ emotion and psychology, making the film both an exciting example of swordplay cinema and a moving tribute to the battle against oppression from the margins.
|Sword of the Beast Criterion Collection DVD|
|Sword of the Beast is available individually or as part of the Criterion Collection’s four-disc “Rebel Samurai: Sixties’ Swordplay Classics” box set, which also includes Samurai Spy, Samurai Rebellion, and Kill! (SRP $99.95).|
|Audio||Japanese Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||October 25, 2005|
|Sword of the Beast has been given a very nice anamorphic widescreen transfer from the 35mm composite fine-grain print. The black-and-white image is richly detailed and smooth without looking digitized. Blacks are generally solid, contrast is first-rate, and shadow detail is excellent throughout. The MTI Digital Restoration System has removed almost all artifacts, leaving the image looking very nearly pristine.|
|The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the optical fine-grain print and digitally restored, sounds extremely good for its age. There is virtually no ambient hiss and a complete lack of any aural artifacts. The soundtrack nicely replicates subtle background noises, as well as the slightly-over-the-top sound effects that accompany all the swordfights.|
|The only supplement included is an essay in the insert booklet by Japanese film scholar Patrick Marcias.|
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection