Sword of the Beast (1965)
Directed by Hideo Gosha

Sword of the Beast
Kedamono no ken
Starring Mikijiro Hira (Gennosuke), Go Kato (Yamane), Shima Iwashita (Taka), Toshie Kimura (Misa), Kunie Tanaka (Tanji), Eijiro Tono (Minister)
Screenplay by Hideo Gosha and Eizaburo Shiba

Shochiku, 85 minutes
B&W, 2.35:1 scope
English-subtitled DVD: Criterion
(Part of the Rebel Samurai box set)

In Sword of the Beast, Hideo Gosha takes the standard cruel jidai-geki premise (low-ranking samurai being exploited and betrayed by their superiors) and puts a fresh spin on it with the creative way in which information is revealed. The movie opens with a ronin named Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira, a member of Gosha's Three Outlaw Samurai) being pursued by a gang of samurai and narrowly escaping death. Through dialogue and flashbacks, we learn that Gennosuke was duped into assassinating a minister in his clan, believing that his deed would bring about needed reforms and score himself a promotion. In fact, the mastermind behind the plot only wanted a rival eliminated in order to usurp his position, and Gennosuke is left hung out to dry as a traitorous ronin.

Having no direction in life and needing money, Gennosuke decides to team up with a wandering gambler named Tanji who plans to pan for gold. The only hitch is that the mountain where they intend to go prospecting is owned by the shogun, and poaching gold there is punishable by decapitation. Despite the risk, Gennosuke and Tanji aren't the only ones seeking the forbidden gold.

About half an hour into the movie, we meet Yamane and Taka, a married couple who have been secretly panning for some time and accumulated a sizable stash of gold. Yamane is a fierce swordsman, hacking up a group of law officials who discover his operation. But one of them escapes, which means Yamane and Taka need to finish up quickly. From this introduction, we expect Yamane to be a villain in the story, an adversary for Gennosuke to duel in the finale. But in fact, Yamane is arguably the hero of the movie, and a more interesting character than Gennosuke.

It turns out that Yamane is not the seedy ronin out for personal profit that he may seem. He's actually a samurai squire without a retainer, whose clan has sent him on a mission to collect the gold. Yamane is under the impression that the gold is needed to protect his clan, and that he will be promoted to full samurai status when the job is done. But this being a Gosha movie, Yamane's superiors may have different intentions.

Gennosuke and Yamane initially clash, but events compel Gennosuke to seek an uneasy alliance when he recognizes their fellowship as two ronin chewed up and spit out by the establishment. When Yamane is forced to choose between his clan ambitions and Taka's life, Gosha raises some formidable questions about the limitations of samurai honor.

The Jidai-Geki Knights