“Kedamono no ken” (“Sword of the Beast,” also released as “Samurai Gold Seekers”) dates from 1965, and was directed by Gosha Hideo. It was his second movie after “Three Outlaw Samurai” (and before the “Samurai Wolf” movies and “Goyokin”). In some ways “Sword of the Beast” is less impressive than the other three films in Criterion’s “rebel samurai” box set (Kill!, Samurai Rebellion, Samurai Spy), but it has very striking visual compositions, an interesting ronin protagonist, excellent action sequences, and more complex women’s roles than any other samurai movie I have seen. Like many westerns from the 1960s and 70s (most notably, Sam Peckinpah‘s), the “rebel samurai” movies from the 1960s are set near the end of an era, for Japan the Tokugawa shogunate. The old (samurai/”Wild West”) order was ending, leaving the technicians of violence perplexed about becoming anachronisms, as their way of life is ending. “Sword of the Beast” is set in 1857, eleven years before the abolition of the Tokugawa shogunate.
At the start, Gennosuke (Hira Mikijiro, who had played smaller parts in the “Samurai Trilogy” and the observer who finally takes a side in Gosha’s “Three Outlaw Samurai” the year before) is on the run, having assassinated a counselor of his clan. In later flashbacks the viewer sees that his quest for reform was used by the man who would succeed to the office and who had encouraged the three assassins through implications that he could later deny having intended (a la Henry II re: Thomas à Becket)
Gennosuke is a master swordsman, who hacks his way out of at least three ambushes over the course of the movie. Also three times, he is on the verge of a duel with a samurai of intact honor and the two are distracted by crises and fight together instead of fighting each other. As in most samurai movies, many opponents die. The bandits are clearly bad guys, and, though hunted as a beast, Gennosuke turns out to have considerable honor, leavened by pragmatism (or bitter experience) that the samurai on official (ostensibly honorable) missions lack. Jurata Yamane (Kato Go, who was also in “Samurai Rebellion”) and his wife Taka (Iwashita Shima) are betrayed by the clan leader they have served for many years with great zeal and self-sacrifice, and Daizaburo (Suga Kantaro) realizes that he and his fiancée, Misa (Kimura Toshie), whose father Gennosuke assassinated, cannot go home again (to the clan).
Although nothing in comparison to the dark humor of “Yojimbo,” Sanjuro, and “Kill!,” there is some comedy amidst the chases, battles, and agonies about what honor requires.
The characters are rawer (less stylized) than in earlier samurai pictures (e.g., Mizoguchi’s “47 Ronin”). The decaying feudal system was crushing samurai honor (and samurai survival), as was also shown in “Kill!,” “Samurai Rebellion,” “Hara-kiri,” Sword of Doom, Samurai Assassin, and “Samurai Spy” (all made during the 1960s). Moreover, in Japan of the 1960s, as in the US, antiheroes were found, imagined, or inserted into earlier epochs by writers and film-makers, who showed the manipulation of unscrupulous leaders of those trying to live up to codes of honor and fealty. The latter are treated as expendable by leaders.
The plot is not simple—except in comparison to “Samurai Spy” and “Sword of Doom.” In addition to the flashbacks, it is complicated by the existence of four groups on the mountain (reserved for the shogun) that has gold.
The mountain locations (with a rushing stream in which much of the action takes place) also parallel the westerns of Peckinpah, Anthony Mann, Sergio Leone, Richard Brooks, and others. (OK, the westerns mostly were set in drier locales, except for Mann’s.)
The music of Tsushima Toshiaki (who scored other Gosha samurai movies) is spare and reminiscent of that of Takemitsu. The sound transfer is excellent (albeit monaural). Tsuchiya Toshitada supplied the superb black-and-white cinematography that has also been transferred with the usual Criterion digitizing care and skill. (IMDB lists no other credits to him.) The subtitles make sense and are easy to read. There are no extras. Well, there is supposed to be an essay by Patrick Macia, but since I rented the movie, I haven’t seen it.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray