SWORD OF THE BEAST (Hideo Gosha, 1965)

Duped into killing a minister of his clan as a means of ushering in reform, retainer Gennosuke has headed to the hills, accompanied by his attendant, and pursued by a posse of clan members, as well as the murdered man’s daughter and her fiancé, all intent on dispatching him. It is the late nineteenth century, and only recently has Japan been opened up to the world.

Hideo Gosha’s brilliant second feature, Kedamono no ken, is expressive of Japanese disillusionment in its own time, the result of the war and its outcome, including the U.S. occupation and U.S. influence—their subversion of Japanese cultural identity. Cast out of the clan and on the run for his life, Gennosuke embodies the unraveling of tradition; he is a lost samurai. Unseen shrieking birds and insects, along with a loudly rushing mountain river, echo his alienation.

Indeed, Gosha has devised a bleak, unbridled black-and-white vision that obliterates the composure of customary Japanese mise-en-scène (and other Japanese visual art) and which, despite the recent time of the action, evokes a much earlier barbarism—this, suggestive of the extent to which Japan’s iron-clad seclusion had bottled up its past. The clash of swords evokes, as well, fierce frustration, desperation. This is a wild film, full of violence yet little, if any, visible bloodshed. The plot, which is far more complicated than the summary given here suggests, is all but swept away by the sight and sound of the river.

Mikijiro Hira’s performance as Gennosuke, magnificent, possesses an almost documentary presence. Gennosuke’s choice of unmitigated solitude in the last scene is so efficiently cut away from that a neurotic, sentimental audience response is impossible. After the film, its collapse of the difference between life and death comes back to haunt.

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