Kedamono no ken

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #311: Hideo Gosha’s Sword of the Beast.

It just hap­pens to be co­in­ci­dence that I was read­ing the Hagakure when this movie came in on my hold list at the li­brary.

Naoshige on­ce said, “The Bushido sig­ni­fies des­per­ate death. Several tens of sane samu­rais could not kill a sin­gle samu­rai [who burns with this mad death].”

Sane men of calm­ly com­posed mind can­not ac­com­plish a great en­ter­prise. You have on­ly to get wild­ly crazy to the point of death. The mo­ment dis­cre­tion and con­sid­er­a­tion min­gle with your Bushido, you will sure­ly hes­i­tate and lag be­hind your en­ter­prise.

To the Bushido, loy­al­ty and fil­ial du­ty will nat­u­ral­ly fol­low from your mad­ness. Because in this des­per­ate death, both of the­se qual­i­ties dwell in your ac­tions.

If ever there was a samu­rai who em­bod­ies the des­per­ate death of Bushido, the char­ac­ter of Gennosuke in Sword of the Beast is that man. His tale takes place as the Tokugawa shogu­nate was dwin­dling, on the cusp of the Meiji Restoration [when the po­si­tion of samu­rai was abol­ished] and soon af­ter Commodore Perry’s ships end­ed Japan’s long self-im­posed cul­tur­al iso­la­tion. Now that you’ve got a bit of his­tor­i­cal con­text and a bit of the cul­tur­al phi­los­o­phy that dri­ves the ac­tions of the char­ac­ters in the film, it be­comes much more than a hack-and-slash samu­rai film.


The re­cur­rent the­me of hu­man bes­tial­i­ty [not that kind, sicko but I bet that ups my search re­fer­rals] is near­ly con­stant, while Gennosuke might be­have as a beast at one mo­ment, a breath lat­er he is an hon­or­able samu­rai. At oth­er points through­out the film oth­er char­ac­ters be­have in sim­i­lar man­ners. Jurota, the gold seek­er, re­fus­es to save his wife when she falls in­to the hands of ban­dit-prospec­tors; opt­ing in­stead to re­main loy­al to his clan. The same prospec­tors lat­er rape an­oth­er wom­an on the moun­tain and when Jurota’s clan fi­nal­ly shows up, they are bent on killing every­one on the moun­tain, in­clud­ing Jurota and his wife.

The char­ac­ters be­lieve that gold will el­e­vate them, but in­stead it is what caus­es their bes­tial be­hav­ior. Gennosuke is ac­tu­al­ly con­vinced that he is turn­ing in­to a wolf. Essentially what we get is a dis­tort­ed form of Bushido that deem­pha­sizes the clan-loy­al­ty in fa­vor of a more Western in­di­vid­u­al loy­al­ty. After Gennosuke’s be­tray­al by his own clan, he rapid­ly adapts this war­rior code through­out his ron­in and by the end of the film has man­aged a makeshift bal­ance be­tween his new path and his old Bushido. His failed am­bi­tion is mir­rored in Jurota’s ef­forts, and Jurota’s pres­ence on the moun­tain acts as the cat­a­lyst to pre­cip­i­tate Gennosuke’s in­ter­nal re­demp­tion.

The use of flash­back does strange things to the con­ti­nu­ity, be­cause the first few aren’t sig­naled very well. Eventually they turn a bit more stan­dard trick and I won­der if this was an­oth­er de­lib­er­ate cor­re­la­tion be­tween beast and man, since the am­bigu­ous se­quences come deep in the beast phase of Gennosuke’s sto­ry. His adapt­ed Bushido would ap­pear very mod­ern to post-WWII Japanese, and Gennosuke’s fa­cil­i­ty at in­cor­po­rat­ing it in­to his life mir­rors Japan’s sim­i­lar fa­cil­i­ty which al­lowed them to re­group as an eco­nom­ic pow­er so quick­ly af­ter their sur­ren­der.

I can’t be­lieve I’ve not talked about the fenc­ing yet! It is most ex­cel­lent, very raw, at times grace­ful and at times clum­sy, ne­ces­si­ties de­pend­ing on ter­rain and num­ber of op­po­nents. Gennosuke is pret­ty much a mas­ter of the one-stroke kill, and while the deaths are of­ten ham­my, I want­ed to see more sweet slic­ing ac­tion.

Criterion Essay by Chris D.
Criterion Essay by Patrick Macias
French re­view [in French, duh] with screen cap­tures.

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