Sword of the Beast

Ah, I love a good chanbara film. This one has all the elements -- intrigue, betrayal, and most importantly, the individual needing to decide whether he should do what is right for himself or what society deems is correct. Here we follow Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira), a ronin who was manipulated by a scheming higher-up to slay his lord after the lord turned a deaf ear to reform (this is set later than most chanbara films, in the mid-19th century). Gennosuke is now on the run, and he stumbles into a complex situation involving a gold-mining operation on the side of a mountain that is apparently so filled with the precious mineral that men are killing each other to get their hands on it. Gennosuke doesn’t care much about the gold – he’s too wrapped up in his own honor, or the apparent loss of it – but he does get caught up in the struggle to possess it, largely because he encounters a couple sitting on a vast pile of it, and the husband reminds Gennosuke of himself. To spice things up even further, his clan has sent several retainers after him, spurred on by his lord’s widow. Of course the movie spools all this detail out more slowly, introducing characters over the course of the film and making sure you can follow all the intricate goingson. Mikijiro Hira does a good job with Gennosuke, playing up his conflicted nature but keeping him accessible enough for the viewer to embrace. He alone isn’t interested in the money, and the filmmakers use that as a commentary on greed in society, that everyone else will kill or manipulate others for some shiny metal (Gennosuke partners with a gold prospector who is remarkably unavaricious for that type of business as well). For Gennosuke, the quest becomes to save the doomed husband and wife, even while fending off his would-be killers; he’s been used by his clan, and he hates to see someone else betrayed in exactly the same way. While lacking the wider scope of something like Hidden Fortress or the dark humor of Yojimbo, Beast is nonetheless a fine film (and a Criterion Collection member). The performances are subtle and effective, and even though, yes, like most period Japanese films, the ending is somewhat of a downer, nonetheless the path taken to get there is well worth investigating. Though not as well known as some other chanbara classics, this is a movie well worth the time for anyone who has any interest at all in the genre (and Netflix has it, so tracking it down shouldn’t prove too much of a chore). April 3, 2012