“This is butchery!”
Directed by renowned chambara/yakuza filmmaker, Hideo Gosha, Kedamono no Ken is a classic jidaigeki film made in the archetypal style. It was the follow-up to Gosha’s debut, Three Outlaw Samurai, and shares many similarities with it in his signature use of flashback, close-ups, and blatant violence. Filmed in black and white (as were many jidaigeki films in the ‘60s), it was representative of a reluctance to abandon tradition and progress in a different direction. The narrative of this film however is much more literal-minded in expressing this concept.
The story begins with ronin, Gennosuke Yuuki (played by Mikijiro Hira), being hunted by his former clan members. He has murdered their counselor, Yamaoka. In dealings with the vice-counselor prior to this, he was persuaded into believing that Yamaoka’s death would rush certain revolutionary reforms. The assassination complete, Gennosuke is abandoned, left to bear the guilt and consequences of the action, all promises of reform stemming now from the corrupt vice-counselor (now, counselor full stop). Gennosuke is hunted by Daizaburo, a close friend from the dojo, as well Master Katori, and Misa, the daughter of Yamaoka and fiancé to Daizaburo. There is a continual conflict between not only greed and honour but honour and integrity, the upholding of one’s law-derived code and one’s individual code – how some separate the two codes and how others do not.
Gennosuke befriends a poor farmer early on in the film. They are betting odds with shady prospectors. They win, the prospectors get angry, and Gennosuke scares them off. The farmer confides that there is a Mount Shirane in Koshu, owned by the shogunate, bearing gold. He suggests they try their hand at some panning; the penalty for poaching: decapitation. Unable to come up with a reason not to, the two men form a partnership, Gennosuke acting as bodyguard. Atop the mountain, they meet Jurota Yamane (Go Kato), a squire furtively panning for gold with his wife, Taka. He dreams of becoming a samurai, just as Gennosuke once did. The counselor of his clan promised him a hefty two hundred koku for delivering the gold. When rival prospectors later hold his wife hostage however, Jurota is unwilling to sacrifice his duty for his love. He is portrayed as a villain at this point yet, like Gennosuke, there is more to his character than superficial appraisals can reveal. “This mountain is a dwelling for beasts,” says Gennosuke, and this is perhaps the central idea behind the film: we’re all beasts when cornered. Gosha is very dogmatic in expressing this theme and this is the film’s chief strength and weakness: it is tirelessly focused on its message. Economic and minimalist but not in as daring a way as Kobayashi or Teshigahara; still, it is as technically-proficient as anything to come out in the early ‘60s with furious swordfights and picturesque set pieces all directed with Gosha’s assured eye.
Certainly an indication of greater things to come for Gosha, the film is a fine example of jidaigeki films made at the time. Taking place in 1857, when Western reform loomed on the horizon, transition has always been a primary concern of Japanese filmmakers, and Sword of the Beast effectively captures the chaotic atmosphere of the period when change was least in all minds but those few fanatical enough to bring it about.