Sword of the Beast (1965) movie poster

(1965) director Hideo Gosha
viewed: 08/04/10

Another great samurai flick from the 1960’s, Sword of the Beast is co-written and directed by Hideo Gosha.  Shot in black-and-white and on location in the mountains, the film has an interesting visual aesthetic and a near constant chatter of birds in the background.  The location shooting gives the film a unique character, as Gosha foreground nature throughout, sometimes obscurring a swordfight behind the tall grass or having certain swordmen dispatched into the flowing river.

The story is set toward the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate and follows a samurai who is on the run, having slain an official in his clan at the suggestion of an elder.  He had been duped into this murder, however, thinking that the elder who had suggested the crime would help his career advance.  It is a time in which there is not much feudal battle and the strata of society are hard to breach.  As he runs into the woods and mountains, he claims that he has become “a beast”, an animal outside of society, which initially he takes as self-derision.

When he meets another samurai and his wife, who are illegally panning for gold in the mountains, he learns of the further hypocrisy of the society.  That this noble, talented warrior was willing to do something ignoble to gain rank in his clan is something to which he relates.  And when he learns that this samurai’s clan plans to betray him as well after his dutiful action, he is forced into a violent response.

I’ve read that the film, like other notable samurai films of the period, was made as somewhat of a response to the blind dedication that was at the heart of Japanese society going in to WWII, in which people committed themselves to the laws and ideals of their governing bodies.  And like the American Western, the stories posed in period setting allowed for social commentary that would have been too obvious and potentially unwelcomed if stated more overtly.  But I wondered as well if this commentary had other more contemporary parallels, such as the dedication to a business or company, the heads-down company man following orders.

Whatever the key point of target for the commentary of the film, it’s a strong and interesting one.  Another of the Criterion Collection’s fine selection of Japanese films.  At this point, I can only wish they had more.  Since a year or two ago, I’ve been watching more and more samurai films (not yet distinguishing them with all of the specific nomenclature that is available) but learning and gleaning more and more with each film that I see.

It’s good stuff.