Chinmoku begins with a montage of classic Japanese art depicting the introduction of Christianity into Japan. As the opening credits inform us, “The 16th for “Japan’s rulers were worried about the new religion’s rapid spread since it came with the gun.” And here, we enter the 17th suppression of the Shimabara Rebellion (Kakure Kirishitan). Christians were severely persecuted in Japan at this time: “Straw mats were wrapped about them and set afire. As the fire spread, they began to hop around. The pagans laughed at the mat dancers. They enjoyed it … and things have gotten worse.”
One of the missionaries, our protagonist, Sebastiao Rodrigues (a character based on Giuseppe Chiara) seeks to determine the whereabouts (whether alive or dead) of a Padre Ferreira, his mentor. He is accompanied by Padre Garrpe, who is earnest but naïve. They are brought to the shores of Japan by a man named Kichijiro. Sebastiao asks him if he is a Christian while Garrpe asks if he is Japanese. Kichijiro responds, “Of course. I am Japanese.” And this is often the breakdown between the concept of god and the human individual: the sacrifice of religious integrity or personal preservation. Such is the fundamental struggle for the believer; the test of true faith. Kichijiro soon becomes a liability as he is unable, in his boasting, to keep the presence of the padres a secret. We soon learn that eight years before, his family was reported to the magistrate and ordered to step on a medallion bearing Christ’s image. His siblings refused and were burned at the stake. He denied his belief out of terror and lived.
The padres are given refuge by a smattering of Christians in the local village of Tomogi – the few remaining priests and monks having abandoned the village years ago. The islanders flock to the missionaries for leadership but soon officials arrive demanding the names of Christians rumoured in the village. No one discloses and, in turn, the villagers are eventually either crucified or run out of Tomogi. Sebastiao, out of sheer luck, escapes and happens upon Kichijiro hiding in the mountains. The padre is told that there is a bounty for him worth three hundred pieces of silver and he shamefully replies, “And Christ was only sold for thirty pieces.” It isn’t long before he’s captured, betrayed by Kichijiro. He is taken to Magistrate Inoue, dubbed “the king of the demons” by an islander. We later learn that Inoue was once a Christian himself. When the two meet, the soundtrack is utterly silent for a moment – a fine bit of artistry.
With a soundtrack by the always brilliant Toru Takemitsu, the film is saturated with strains of classical and baroque, experimental and avant-garde music. The cinematography is steady and sweeping; a quietly methodical atmosphere. Released in 1971, Masahiro Shinoda’s Silence is based on the 1966 Shusaku Endo novel of the same name which was (mostly) narrated in the form of a letter by Sebastiao. Endo’s novel dealt with the silence of god in the midst of adversity and Shinoda’s film captures that theme perfectly. It is rare in cinema when a filmmaker decides not to pursue a particular direction and allow the audience to interpret the portrayed events and characters subjectively. Inoue is not presented as a villain (“You force your own dreams on us thoughtlessly”) and neither is Sebastiao – they are merely two men from differing homelands, each committed to the truth of his cause. There is nothing as immovable as the conviction of the religious, the lustful indulgence of selflessness. By the film’s conclusion, one can’t help but conclude: religion is exceptionally effective at segregating people from each other. And finally, Chinmoku prompts the question most relevant to the human condition: given our instinct to assimilate according to our environment/condition, is the concept of adopting a religion (ignoring the argument of whether the religion is propagating a truth or falsehood) even a human capability when subjective wellbeing is threatened? “All rivers run to the sea but the sea is not full.”
Two teenagers, Nanami (Kuniko Ishii) and Shun (Akio Takahashi), rent a room at a hotel. “Isn’t it expensive?” he asks. She’s paying. He’s reluctant. She reassures him. He tells her this is his first time. She laughs, not in mockery but surprise. After renting the room, she disrobes, saying, “You can do whatever you want.” He is embarrassed, unsure of himself, finding every excuse to avoid his reason for coming there. Noticing his silent discomfort, Nanami sings him a song, “You’re only young once. Youth only comes once so if you’re a man, do it – do what the others can’t do.” She then pauses, “What the others do – don’t we all do the same thing?” He can’t do it but he promises her the next time he will. At one point she asks, “Why do you close your eyes when you kiss me?” “I’m shy,” he replies. “Don’t you want to see if I have my eyes shut?”
Shun returns to work. He watches and feeds the pigeons in the park when he’s not working and soon he befriends Momi, a little girl who wanders there from time to time to play. He tells Nanami that she and Momi are his two closest friends, but it isn’t long before his relationship with Momi falls under suspicion of molestation and he is nearly beaten by a mob in the street. He goes to see a psychiatrist and is put under hypnosis. We learn that Shun was molested by his stepfather and begin to realise how it has affected his life and poisoned his thoughts. Early on, Nanami asks him about himself. He tells her some but not all. His father died when he was very young and his mother ran off with a boxer shortly after. In and out of reform school, Shun was eventually taken in by a family named Otagaki. He was not adopted however, they were his benefactors. His stepfather a goldsmith, Shun his journeyman. Nanami has a longtime fondness for a successful businessman named Mr. Ankokuji. He “often dreams of fires.” He has a wife but she’s cold to him. He muses, “I’ve often thought of setting her afire when she’s asleep.” It is these little bits of dialogue scattered throughout the film that elevates it higher than most. Shun calls Ankokuji perverse and disgusting; Nanami says that he is merely normal.
Susumu Hani’s 1968 film, Hatsukoi Jigokuhen, is an early proponent of the Japanese New Wave. It is highly regarded by some as a feverishly honest portrait of adolescence and viewed as disgustingly exploitative by others. Technically, the film is finely done and highly experimental with stark contrasts, still shot montages, and complicated camera angles.
Though the film is really about Nanami and her effect on virtually every male around her, the audience follows Shun about. He, in every sense of the word, is the most tragic character. Every article he reads, every conversation he overhears, every expression he misinterprets induces him to guilt. Indeed, the scene where he forces himself to laugh is as heartbreaking as it is quirkily humourous. The film dedicates a great deal of time to one frustration after another for Shun, one hopeless opportunity after another, and never does he execute his actions properly. This is, of course, pure adolescence: the insecurity, the awkwardness, these are natural and common. Here, however, the gloom is laid on quite heavily (and, at times, quite literally).
When Nanami invites Shun to go to a student film festival, he acquiesces but is rude the entire time. He doesn’t understand such types. “I can’t pretend things I don’t feel,” he says and that is certainly true. “Sensibility and taste are formed by reading,” one of the teachers declares but the sentiment seems empty somehow with every conversation the audience has eavesdropped at the festival containing only selfish pronouncements and egotistical asides. This is not the world of Shun for he is not a human being but the byproduct of one. The emotions we take for granted, the contentedness that is flitting but possible, desire, aspiration – these are not options but mysteries for him. His fate has been decided for him at an early age merely by the decisions enforced upon him by his parental guardians. At one point, Mr. Ankokuji says to Shun, “You’re still young, you still believe in love.” Such a statement couldn’t be furthest from the truth.
Imamura’s biopic of notorious killer, Akira Nishiguchi (named Enokizu Iwao in the film, played by Ken Ogata), is an unusual one spotted with moments of violence, absurdity, and even humor. It is unsettling, not only by Iwao’s cavalier treatment of violence, but Imamura’s implication that depravity is inherent within us all. Iwao is the archetype for this moral bankruptcy, an extreme depiction of emptiness. The film begins with his capture then details, in erratic flashback, his seventy-eight days on the lam and the relevant events preceding it. It is the portrayal of a childish man who was born a defiant boy, scornful of his father’s seeming cowardice. His father is Shizuo; a fisherman who was coerced into selling his boats to the Emperor’s navy when Iwao was young. Iwao spends his childhood in a reformatory then enters the war. Afterward, his marriage to Kazuko Omura is arranged and their relationship stagnates in a sea of uncomfortable silence. Iwao is later imprisoned for fraud and Shizuo visits Kazuko and the children, imploring her to leave the griminess of the backwoods and live with him and his wife. This is when Imamura’s film begins to open new territory. Kazuko attempts to seduce Shizuo (for she has always had a “great respect” for him) but he refuses to even acknowledge the occurrence. He arranges her to have sex with a friend of his instead and she, reluctant at first, submits, fantasizing that he is her step-father. Iwao is eventually released on parole and returns home suspicious and restless.
The killing of two transport workers, one discovered in a radish field the other at the bottom of a cement yard, begins his venture into senseless murder. After this, he commits apparent suicide by jumping into the sea from a cruise ship. The police don’t buy it and begin investigating acquaintances. His sexual appetite is insatiable and often violent so the trail of abused and frustrated women is easy to follow. He leaves a suicide note: “I have reached the final station on my life’s journey and started down the path to the next world” and this is more an affirmation of his newfound fatalistic lifestyle than the end of it.
We eavesdrop on some of his informants: the married woman who had an affair with him, a stripper in Chikuhashi, and his wife. When his parents are interviewed by the police, we see that they now own an inn in the Goto Islands. “Iwao has been no end of trouble since he was little, but I never imagined he’d murder anyone,” his father says, and this is brutal point of Imamura’s film. There is no external consistency to warn of a scoundrel because they are not pure embodiments of evil but products of misconceptions, frustrations and insecurities (their own and society’s). This is what makes products like Iwao distressing for he could be any of us under a similar mental state and set of circumstances.
Iwao, posing as a bail bondsman, later scams an old woman. As he flees he befriends a district attorney whom he soon murders. He stays at the man’s home for as long as possible then takes lodging at an inn owned by a sweet but morally questionable woman and her mother. Ogata is fantastic as Iwao: cold, obsessive, but also with an adaptable appearance and normal façade which creates an even creepier atmosphere. The editing style is very irregular with sharp jarring cuts intercut with associative asides and deep close-ups. When the ending finally arrives, there is a mysterious ambiguity to it. What are these still frames? It is horrifying and absurd, but also a reminder that, while the human shell who has committed such hideous acts is gone, the energy remains and cannot be exiled. Iwao offers no discernable motive apart from, “I wanted to remain free as long as I could.” Vengeance is Mine is a portrait of an empty shell, a wandering spirit propelled by animalistic impulses and selfish gain. Morality is never an option for such as he; only a pretense to murder.
“These customs are so complicated.”
Taeko and Yukiko, the youngest sisters in the prestigious Makioka family, are looking for suitors, but their guardian, Tsuruko, the eldest of the four sisters, has a habit of rejecting cavaliers at the eleventh-hour. She is practical and only concerned with tradition and appearance. Sachiko is the next eldest; more emotional and sympathetic yet still acquiescent of some of her older sister’s views. The entire film hinges upon Yukiko’s marriage (she being older than Taeko). She seems to know the kind of man she wants but has yet to find him. Taeko is quietly defiant, anxious to marry, and constantly frustrated by her sisters’ fastidiousness. The two sisters live at the home of Sachiko and her husband, Teinosuke.
Directed by Kon Ichikawa, The Makioka Sisters is a quiet but affecting film dealing with quintessential Japanese issues: society, tradition, and integrity. There is also the rigidity of family values and the pride inherent there which are explored. Through this we meet Yukiko’s various suitors and eavesdrop on the lives of the Makioka family. The film begins in 1938 Osaka with Taeko asking Sachiko for her dowry money in advance. Soon, Teinosuke remarks, “A geisha is always careful not to wet her painted lips. She must take in the food without letting it touch her lips.” And this is a running theme throughout the film: these sisters, these women born and bred by the traditional path, conditioned to lead their kin down this path … will they follow in their sisters’ footsteps or rebel?
We meet a few colourful supporting characters outside the family such as suitor, Mr. Nomura, an officer of a fishery agency at the Agricultural Office. He is forty-two and lost his wife and children five years before. He is a reserved man and always proper but also antisocial and quite possibly dangerously obsessed with his work – one of the many ill-suited suitors for Yukiko. We learn of Taeko who aspires to have her own doll shop. She arranges with a photographer (Itakura) to have pictures taken for an exhibition booklet at the Koigawa Gallery (paid for by her sister, Sachiko). A man named Okuhata is a former lover; he manages a jewelry shop. Five years ago, the two had attempted to elope but were stopped by the police. Not soon after, a newspaper prints the news of their elopement and erroneously indicates Okuhata and Yukiko. The family is outraged and, for a time, the scandal (such as it is) brings them much embarrassment. Itakura used to work for Okuhata but left for “selfish reasons,” and so, there is a rivalry between them now, mostly emanating from Okuhata. Itakura is genuinely appreciative of Taeko’s work; Okuhata, mildly amused. Taeko genuinely feels for him despite his low income and modest personality, however, his is a status is frowned upon by the older sisters.
It is a film about appearance and the disturbance of appearance. The elder Makioka sisters are strict about maintaining a respectable aura at all times, though in brief moments of joy they laugh and tease each other. They have been molded by the conditioning of traditional society, only in private moments do they feel the opportunity for defiance; it is a liberating act. They are not brainwashed you see, they are products of societal conditioning and centuries of tradition. The soundtrack (at times heavy, at times light), with sweeping strings and airy synths, is a bit unusual on occasion but when juxtaposed with the visual style and general tone it feels appropriate. It is, overall, a quiet film though with beautiful imagery and fluid cinematography. The screenplay is based on a story by Junichiro Tanizaki, a writer who often interchanged between controversially sexual and violent tales (Quicksand, The Key) and stories of Eastern values as they were assimilated by the West in 20th century Japanese society (Naomi, Some Prefer Nettles). Ichikawa’s film captures the latter with a finesse that is certainly worthy of Tanizaki’s work.
“When I am with you, I wonder why I always think of my past.”
About a thousand years ago, a noblewoman, living under the customary seclusion of her day, wrote what many consider to be the first classic novel. Murasaki Shikibu was of the Heian court in Kyoto at a particular time when some of Japan’s greatest literary works were written. As per tradition, she had little communication with men outside of her immediate family and her learning of Chinese was generally frowned upon, but following her husband’s death shortly after the birth of their daughter, she withdrew to a Shingon Buddhist temple. While gazing past an ancient lake by the light of the moon, legend tells us that Murasaki composed The Tale of Genji. Her skill as an author was acknowledged and soon she became a lady-in-waiting at the court, continuing to pen vast prose for the remainder of her life. Sugii’s animated adaptation of Murasaki’s canonical tale captures the atmosphere of the period very well. There is a pensive, unrushed characteristic of the film which is appealing but also an occasional cause of obliqueness. There is not eroticism but passion, not flamboyance but exploration: Buddhism at its most dastardly and sincere.
The film begins with Lord Genji carrying a woman named Yugao through a deserted mansion. She is one of his many mistresses and much beloved. Genji is the emperor’s second prince. It is said, “Nothing rivals him in the Capital” and this is certainly true but, beyond the physical realm, it is soon revealed that he is powerless. When the opening credits clear, we see him being fitted and pampered (to his boredom). Lady Aoi is his first wife and he is less than ecstatic about it. Neither of them feel any real attachment to each other as their marriage was a parental political move. He has many other lovers (there are about fifteen described in the novel): some beautiful, some cold, some intelligent, others meek. His interest in (most of) these women springs from their unattainability and his interest wanes once they are attained.
He has been having an affair with the late first prince’s wife, Miyasudokoro Rokujo (everyone, including the emperor, seem to know about it but it’s officially a secret), for quite some time. She is five years his senior and cynical as to the possibility of their marriage. She is neither the first nor the last love he has conquered recently, yet her pride and jealousy bears an energy that extends beyond the grave. His stepmother, however, is his greatest desire. When Genji learns that the Empress is pregnant, he is conflicted. “I cannot hold back my feelings,” he says to her eventually. Theirs is a doomed path – there can be no easy resolution in the rigid confines of this society. There is a cherry blossom motif which occurs throughout the film representing the cause (or one could say, the result) of this trouble.
The voice acting is superb; often conversational, always emotional. Much of the dialogue contains men talking about women and women talking about men, but it is theatrical and existentially earnest. Featured is a haunting soundtrack that is both fitting to the time period and dynamic. The animation is smooth and tasteful, preferring slow pans and long takes to allow tension to build over time. While a bit dated at first glance, its odd static movements become captivating and surreal. It is a deliberate film with conversations being heard but not seen for minutes on end and characters saying things like, “I have nothing to say.” It’s all done so well though that it’s suffocating serious tone is not painful but blissful. Sugii’s film, however, only adapts the first twelve chapters of the original novel’s fifty-four (entirely understandable considering this spans over a thousand pages). Despite this, it is a worthy adaptation that maintains the essence of its source material in a respectful way.
“Turn me back into who I was before. My old self.”
Akira and Fumiko are caught pickpocketing American tourists in a jazz club by a journalist named Kashiwagi. He alerts the police to their crime and they are imprisoned. Akira befriends a man named Masaru while inside. When they are released, Akira reunites with Fumiko, steals a car, and cruises the beach. Akira spies Kashiwagi out with his fiancé, Yuki, and strikes him with the driver’s side door, abducting Yuki. They all stop after a while: Fumiko and Masaru rush off to swim and have sex, Akira meanwhile, rapes Yuki. Such is the life of juvenile misfits in Kurahara’s 1960 film, shot in a way that is both influenced by Nicolas Ray and prophetic of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.
Akira soon fences the car to an automotive chop shop (run by children apparently) and, with the money, rents a flat. Masaru soon joins a yakuza mob while Akira is confronted by Yuki. She is pregnant but more concerned about Kashiwagi who has become a temperamentally detached man of late. Akira has a plan but it is one closely related to his inner nihilism. There are memorable scenes here; stark and realistic structurally but performed with such psychosis that it operates outside of reality. It is ultimately tragic but doesn’t wallow in it. Instead, perhaps less desirably, tragedy is an expectant cloud fit to release upon all involved inescapably.
Prominent in the film is the jazz score: omnipresent, ever in the mind of the criminal, Akira – a drug of the ears enrapturing all those who dare listen. There is even a scene at a jazz club where Yuki stops a playing jazz record and Akira attempts to stab her with a broken beer bottle. Jazz, in the film, is depicted as an irresistible plague so fulfilling in every way that only violence can result; an implosion of emotion caught within the clutches of every third and fifth. This is complemented by (or rather, complements) the energetic cinematography and schizophrenic characters – all directed by the confidant Kurahara as he depicts animalistic man in the throes of youth.
Often compared to Godard’s Breathless, Kurahara’s take on the “misguided youth” theme occurred at a time when the youth subculture genre was a relatively new angle in film. Kurahara, who will continue to celebrate a career full of box office successes, is just as at home here with guerilla tactics, frenzied editing, and erratic camerawork. Indeed, two other films of note, directed by Kurahara and similar in approach and sensibility, would be his follow-up, Black Sun, and his debut, I am Waiting. A frantic film, Kyonetsu no Kisetsu, radical only through association with the protagonist, is an unforgiving hyper-realistic nightmare fraught with the incomparable joys of jazz.
“You remind me of my younger days. It’s been thirty years since the war. I’ve been wandering places with a gun…it’s an old man’s whining.”
Golgo 13 is a shadowy protagonist, an uncompromising antihero. Also known as Duke Togo, his profession is that of maestro sniper. His identity is anonymous, his past ambiguous, his weapon of choice: a custom M16 rifle. Based on one of the oldest manga series’ still in existence, Golgo 13 is a tortured man (both literally and figuratively) who lives in a darkly realistic world. He is mythologically capable, able to carryout the most impossible of hits with ease (“He’s the strongest man I’ve ever met; he calculates everything precisely”). He speaks seven languages and is proficient even whilst using a rifle that is ill-suited for sniping. He is also, of course, adept at martial arts and handling handguns, not to mention, smoking cigarillos. This is all part of Duke Togo’s charm, he is a Zelazny-esque character whose invincibility is his greatest trait (not unlike James Bond or such ilk). The series was first depicted in live-action in 1973 by Junya Sato. 1977 found the return of master assassin Tolgo to the big-screen, this time portrayed by Sonny Chiba and directed by Yukio Noda.
At the start of the film, Golgo is hired in Miami on a yacht by a man named Rocky Brown, whose part of the U.S. syndicate. He wants a drug embezzler killed. The embezzler however, is Chou “the Kingpin,” the head of the Hong Kong mafia, and his ruthless reputation is just as renown as Golgo’s. Chou though, is himself, only a pawn. Three skilled hitmen had attempted to assassinate Chou before but were deathly unsuccessful. Also, hot on the trail of Chou is Sminny, a hard-as-nails (though a bit daft) Hong Kong detective – certainly one can perceive early on that he will be a formidable antagonist for Golgo as well. Sminny has help however from the briefly able Lin-Li, an insider infiltrating Chou’s nightclub, and an ample supply of fellow officers at his disposal. Shortly into the film, Sminny is “anonymously” tipped off that Golgo has been hired to kill Chou. Sminny has experienced Golgo’s handiwork before so is wary that the killer extraordinaire is on the prowl.
The audience is treated with zoomed close-ups and crosshair lenses, as one might expect from such a film. Shootouts, hostage situations, framings, double-crosses, giant walkie-talkies, and a man shot in the face falling on a lever with a sign reading “Don’t Touch.” It’s like a live-action film that wants to be an anime, completely over-the-top but entertaining nevertheless. Chiba, of course, shows off his karate chops (pun intended) and is fine form as usual. “Your first shot was from anger, the second from fear, the third from love,” he knowingly intones to a young killer – he is, of course, also talking about himself.
There are many little asides throughout the Golgo universe, few expressed subtly. His very name is referential to Golgotha, the place of Christ’s death. Golgo’s chief imagery is a skeleton wearing a crown of thorns. Harumi Ibe’s (Detective Bureau 2-3, A Colt is My Passport) score is as epic as it is, at times, overwhelming, but it perfectly complements the spirit of the manga. Noda’s adaptation is a hit-and-miss affair that struggles to find a consistent tone. It is, after all, a B-movie and it often shows with overtly-direct dialogue, shoddy editing, inconsistent acting, and questionable plot, but Chiba captures the look and spirit of Golgo with ease, a role he was meant to play.
“Nation is a wall between men…it isolates human beings from each other and cuts ties. In other words, it’s against the divine law; so I intend to continue attacking it.”
In Kobe City, Hyogo, there is a man named Kenzo Okuzaki. He is a veteran of the Second World War and is searching for the men responsible for the deaths of two soldiers in his regiment executed twenty-three days after the war had ended. It was following the New Guinea campaign and many horrible deeds are rumoured to have been committed there. Throughout the film, Okuzaki interrogates former military men demanding answers. Tales of starvation and cannibalism arise. His was the 36th Regiment though he became a prisoner of war one year before the war ended. It is now forty years after the war and tensions are still taut. Okuzaki continually blames Emperor Hirohito for his conduct and misguided judgment during the war. He declaims the man as a “symbol of ignorance, irresponsibility, and impossibility.” Less than two years following the release of this film, Hirohito would die of cancer, since to be remembered as Emperor Showa. He was undeniably caught within a difficult time, but nevertheless attributed to the encouragement of mass civilian suicides (which did indeed occur), use of toxic gas, and was, some say, either a puppet or a ruler who lost control of his military.
There is, early in the film, a wedding between a Mr. Otagaki and Miss Sano. Okuzaki acts as a go-between at the ceremony. He gives a speech detailing his relationship with Mr. Otagaki and the circumstances of their mutual imprisonment. Okuzaki has spent thirteen years and nine months in prison for three convictions: murder, assault, and obscenity. His crimes are the murder of a real estate broker, the shooting of a sling at Emperor Hirohito, scattering pornographic flyers of the Emperor, and for plotting to murder the former prime minister, Kakuei Tanaka. These crimes, all part of Okuzaki’s belief in nonconformity. The misguided leadership of Emperor Hirohito and, what he believes, the unlawful execution of two soldiers, are only a piece in the puzzle of this man’s conviction. He is uncompromising in this vision and therefore, a danger to others.
At the beginning of the film, Okuzaki informs the chief of police that he is leaving for Tokyo. The chief is pleased that he was made aware but wary, suggesting a police escort for half of the journey just in case. Okuzaki is an enigmatic man who is no stranger to violence or deception and using such tactics to discover the truth he’s seeking. On the Emperor’s birthday, he denounces the establishment via loudspeaker, driving a vehicle covered with signs and writings of protest. He is also a man of compassion and honour, visiting the graves and loved ones of the two executed soldiers.
Kazuo Hara is a noted documentary filmmaker whose films (particularly this one) tend to end up on “top favourites” lists of auteur filmmakers. It is his most wellknown and decorated film, embodying the central concept of all his documented subjects: nonconformity. Shot by Hara himself, the film is a rough compilation of handheld interviews and conversations, arguments and confrontations; a no-frills documentary that’s only focus is to depict Okuzaki and his cosmology. It is a film portraying a kinetic reality, well beyond the scope of such modern attempts at reality filmmaking. Hara is ever the observer, filming it all, but never participating; prompting one former officer to scream at him whilst being strangled by Okuzaki, “You just film it and do nothing?” Does this mimic Hara’s own cry to the audience? Do we conform because it’s easier to endure or dare we oppose the establishment and bare our individuality?
“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.