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On the surface this may seem like a typical samurai action flick but
like Kurosawa and Kobyashi films there are many social implications
beneath the surface.
The movie seems to revolve around the irony that while Gennosuke, the main character who is basically cast out of society in to the wild and forced to constantly fight for his survival like an animal, is actually the only character that tries to show any qualities above that of a beast.
Every other character from a group of bandits he encounters to the group of clansmen trying to exact revenge after Gennosuke killed their leader, to a man and his wife from a separate clan trying to steal gold to improve their clan status are either acting for revenge, power, or greed. The greed exists because most of the movie takes place around a mountain where gold has just been discovered and Gennosuke is befriended by a poor man hoping to find some for himself.
Throughout the movie there is constant backstabbing, deception, and generally brutal acts committed by a multitude of these characters. For instance the man from a separate clan living with his wife on a shack by the river are attacked by bandits in the woods trying to steal the gold they have already mined; they hold the wife hostage in demand for his booty but the man would rather give up his wife then part with his gold. Her saving grace is when Gennosuke shows up on the the scene and acts with the courage and compassion to save her life. The husband does come around a little later in the movie but in the end his rival clan plans to kill everyone on the mountain and save the gold for themselves threatening the couple, Gennosuke, and his persuers.
Gosha does a great job with his imagery, demonstrating a wild, dark world threatening to swallow humans whole. Throughout the film, which is almost all outdoors are scenes of men disappearing into woods or buried beneath shrubbery. In fact, it's quite reminiscent of another Japanese Classic, Rashamon. Some of the shots are virtually identical, ie the sun being concealed over the forest canopy or disappearing behind a mountain.
One of the best touches is towards the end when soldiers from the rival clan are planning to take the mountain, and kill anyone who knows about the gold. One of them sounds a battle horn to signal the approach, a battle horn made to sound conspicuously like some kind of strange animal call.
The film begins with a group of VERY determined samurai chasing another
one in an attempt to kill him. You really don't know why, but it seems
they've been chasing him for a long time. I really like the
story-telling method where only slowly is the reason for this and other
sub-plots revealed AFTER the major action has introduced the
characters. While this could have made the film confusing, it didn't
drag this mystery on for too long and ultimately created quite a tale.
I particularly liked the overall theme of the meaninglessness of the
corrupt samurai system--this could make the film a "downer" for some,
but I really liked how it was a rebuttal to the myth of the beauty and
elegance of the code of the warrior (much like the myth in Western
society of knighthood and chivalry).
There were quite a few films made in Japan about the corruptness of the Japanese feudal system (such as THE 47 RONIN and SAMURAI SPY), so the overall focus of this anti-samurai film isn't that unusual. However, for fans of this genre, the film has good acting, writing and direction--so it certainly is recommended. It's just that there are other even better Japanese films that are worth seeing first.
One of Gosha's earlier movies, it contains all the elements that made him a
"chambara" director to be admired and emulated: Well-composed and
thoughtful cinematography, a cynical view of authority (with certain
implications for modern Japanese society), human drama, and OF COURSE, some
Certainly a solid and watchable samurai drama, both for "popcorn" and "cinema" appeal. I'd see Goyokin and/or Hitokiri first, but see this one next!
As others have mentioned, this is a solid film about corruption among
feudal samurai. The acting and cinematography are both good and the
evolution in the characters throughout the film is solid. The action
scenes, while not all too common, are very frenetic and gripping.
It is easy to see why this was a Criterion release. There are certainly a number of good samurai movies, but this one isn't like all the others. The title may easily be confused in English with "Sword of Doom" and the protagonist does look quite a bit like Tatsuya Nakadai, but these movies and their themes are completely different.
The movie also stayed with me after watching it. It left me thinking about cults, fraternities and clans. Individuals who dedicate themselves most selflessly to a cause or group, aren't they the easiest group members to sacrifice?
This early Hideo Gosha jidai-geki that was released by Criterion opens
quite abruptly with a ronin named Gennosuke being hunted down for
having killed his clan's counsellor. We're at 1857, on the brink of the
Meiji reformation that saw Japan opening to the west after years of
seclusion and the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The central plot
revolves around the struggle between the old and new in a country on
the verge of change. Although short in duration (clocking in at 85
minutes), the story never lets up with numerous twists and a fast pace.
A series of events will find Gennosuke and a prospector he meets along
the way searching for gold in a mountain, until they get caught up in
another clan's schemes. Nothing is what it seems though, and therein
lies the beauty of Sword of the Beast. As the story progresses both
forwards and backwards (with glimpses in Gennosuke's past in the form
of flashbacks), the characters' motives are fully fleshed out and this
provides the extra dramatic oomph that pushes Sword of the Beast above
"merely OK" territory. Behind all the swordfighting (and there's enough
of it to be enjoyed here, certainly not Lone Wolf and Cub though),
Gosha has a story to communicate.
With beautiful natural exteriors photographed in stark black and white, confident directing from Gosha, very good swordfighting scenes from actors who know their trade and decent performances all around, Sword of the Beast should appeal to all jidai-geki fans. It's neither as monolithic and tragic as Masaki Kobayashi's work from the same time nor as lyrical as Kurosawa's, but it stands somewhere in the middle, stripped to the essentials with a focus on story and theme.
There are many films set in the feudal period of Japan that can be read
as commentary on contemporary Japanese life. Here a couple of
well-meaning and excellent sword-fighters are used by their superiors
to further selfish agendas. The "beast" of the title is not a crazy
samurai but rather the noble hero who is forced by treachery to forgo
his social connections and travel from place to place like a roaming
As western values permeate Japan, the conflict between the individual, as personified by the wandering noble ronin who gives up attempting to reconnect with normalcy (or in American cinema, the western hero who rises above social norm and becomes an ideal to attain), and the good samurai who upholds social stability to the detriment of his own needs (no real American equivalent) found itself expressed in period Japanese films. Many Japanese films of the 1960's and 70's feature characters who reject old fashioned values in the name of justice, yet suffer and never really are able to enjoy their good deeds. This film is set in the time after Commander Perry's ships essentially invaded Japanese territory and threw Japanese society for a spin.
Well-made, good acting and a solid directorial effort makes this a good samurai film even if the repeated flash-backs might be confusing. Unfortunately there are some excellent films that cover this topic already so this particular film seems unremarkable by comparison.
Good film and recommended.
The plot of this film with all its brilliantly weaved in subplots, is as fresh as it was on release simply for its varied human emotions involved.It is brilliantly constructed plot for its masterful simplicity and coherence.I beg to differ with the previous review that the plot is complicated.It has been masterfully shot by Toshitada Tsuchiya.Though not as exclusively done in Hara Kiri, the issue of the insurmountable Samurai-pride is touched upon and exposed for its obvious conflict with human values and frailties.The universal theme of power-centers exploiting desperate individuals for its ends and expending with them once the latter serve out the former's purpose is explored in this film.The theme of the ever-resillient individuals faced with debilitating order and the need to escape the same to be free and alive is the principal theme of this film. Even in its length the film is just one and a half hours.It is so good one would wish it were longer!! This film is highly recommended for anyone interested in films, along with Samurai-drama fans and those who appreciate good cinematography. Definitely a classic.
Sword of the Beast is another one of those "anti-samurai" chanbara
films like Harakiri or Samurai Rebellion. Unlike Kurosawa, whose
samurai films delved into universal and humanistic themes, filmmakers
like Kobayashi or Uchida concentrated specifically on the issues of
feudal Japanese society. This early film by accomplished filmmaker
Hideo Gosha is also socially conscious in that way.
It opens with a huge grass field reminiscent of that from Onibaba, but later shifts the setting to a Rashomon-like forest (near a mountain) where people are often obscured by the grass, bushes and trees in the similar attempt to portray the wickedness of the place's inhabitants who therefore "lost themselves" there. The main character, condemned by society, proves to be the most sane person around while the other characters are often compared to beasts.
The swordfighting scenes are swift and badass to the core. Gosha certainly knows how to film an exciting fight scene without it looking too cheesy, rushed or unrealistic. All in all, the action portions of the film are very exciting.
What I hate the most are the flashbacks, which, like in most Japanese films of that era, are scattered around without distinguishing them from present-time shots, which can be a little confusing sometimes. However, the story opens with a short narration giving us all of the necessary exposition so I guess the flashbacks aren't as bad in this movie as they can be in others.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I found this movie to be very enjoyable with great pacing. Watching this movie, I was enthralled by the artistry involved in good black and white cinematography. The play of the lighting and shadows and the acting involved in this movie is good. For those of you who remember those old sci-fi horror TV shows where the narrator always comes on in the end and makes a closing statement/comment on the preceding episode. In the case of this movie it would've been ".....and the beast was man.". The plot breakdown has already been written in the other reviews so i will not repeat. However I feel that the "message" of the story is interesting enough that different people will come away with different understanding and feelings. For me its a commentary on how honour, duty, patriotism, ambition can and will be manipulated and used by those in authority to control the actions of the masses (for the authorities on benefit).
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It is interesting that the supposed "beast" in this film is the one who
acts with the most honor among all the samurai involved.
It is a short film that has many stories going on.
Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira) has been betrayed by the vice-Chancellor after he kills the Chancellor of the clan and is on the run, a "beast" forced to live in the forest. He befriends a gold digger, who really has an excellent part with laughs and thoughtful lines.
He also comes across another samurai who has been living in the forest with his wife collecting gold for his clan and hoping for advancement. He, too, will be betrayed, and by the same person as betrayed Gennosuke.
As everything gets sorted out, there is some good swordplay, and, like the western hero we are all familiar with, Gennosuke walks off into the sunset.
Definitely makes me want to check out more of Hideo Gosha.
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