Sword of the Beast: The Criterion Collection
One of the earlier films by acclaimed chambara director Hideo Gosha, Sword of the Beast (1965) is full of the elements that define that genre of Japanese filmmaking well-shot swordplay and a sharply defined line between good and evil, with the evil getting their just desserts. Gosha's samurai tale tells the story of a low-level swordsman named Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira), on the run after killing one of the counselors in his clan. This is shared at the top of the film through poorly presented voiceover exposition, one of the few weak points of a solid example of the form by one of the masters. Having killed the counselor in the name of clan reform but partly as part of his own thirst to rise in status and pursued by his former samurai brethren, Gennosuke reacts to his loss of honor by fleeing into the forest, where he encounters a samurai/bandit (Go Kato) illegally mining for gold in an effort to save his own clan. By joining the swordsman, Gennosuke gets a chance to reclaim his honor in a final showdown. The story is told from a few different perspectives, including that of Gennosuke, and of the counselor's vengeful daughter, Misa (Toshie Kimura), as well as that of her swordsman-fiancé Daizaburo (Kantaro Suga). Gennosuke's long-time friend, Daizaburo's conflicted by his orders and puzzled by Gennosuke's refusal to fight bravely like a samurai, instead proclaiming "To hell with name and pride! I'll run and never stop!" and calling their hunting of him as "butchery." As with all the best samurai flicks, there are a few top-notch set-pieces in one, Gennosuke fights his way out of a small tea house that has just one window opening to an alley, then leading ten other swordsmen down a wooded path as he both runs and fights. The final battle, leading through trees and fields and water, is equally impressive. The second swordplay epic by Gosha, the film is marked by its underlying themes of mistrust and betrayal by authority in the mid-60s, when Gosha moved from directing for television to films, there was a current of disgruntled anger in Japan as they watched their own government hand over authority to the United States (the U.S.-Japan Mutual Cooperation and Security Treaty of 1960, which gave U.S.-based military freedom to police Japanese citizens even in domestic issues, inspired the largest public protest in the country's history.) Set, like all chambara, in feudal Japan, Gosha makes some sly statements on politics and government's treatment of those it watches over, hidden within a gorgeously photographed, compelling martial arts film. The Criterion Collection's DVD release of Sword of the Beast is spare, but impressive. Presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), the newly restored high-definition transfer is very clean, with just a few specks popping up here and there. The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio is equally clean, presented in Japanese with new English subtitles. An insert offers and essay on the film by author Patrick Macias. Keep-case.
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