Sword of the Beast: I Wish I Could Be a Beast

Oct 25, 2005

Yasukuni Temple, not far from the Imperial Palace, in Tokyo . . . the spirits of dead warriors are said to reside there. Yasukuni is a Shinto shrine, built in 1869 to honor those who died in Japan’s military service. And because convicted war criminals are also buried there, Yasukuni has become a battleground unto itself. One appearance by the prime minister, to pray for the souls of the departed, and Japan’s relations with countries like China and South Korea go south. To them, Yasukuni is a reminder of the unresolved legacy of the bad old days—World War II, for instance.

Next to the shrine is the Yushukan, a war museum built in the modern Western style. Inside you’ll find actual Zero Fighter airplanes, cannon shells from the battleship Musashi, and bloodstained flags recovered from banzai charges. The Yushukan also houses a collection of swords from the samurai era. Behind glass, like animals at the zoo, these legendary weapons from the Sengoku and Tokugawa eras seem decidedly unromantic, mere tools for the will of the emperor, the shogun, warring clans and their officials—real but oddly devoid of humanity. But if you spend enough time in the museum mulling over these objects, you may begin to sense the ghosts around you, to wonder about the inner lives of the people who once wielded these swords. Did they obey their orders blindly and without doubt? Was their rank and status in Japanese society satisfactory to them? And what sort of energy did they need to fight and kill other human beings? Such inquiries are absent from the museum’s impersonal march through history. But these questions are central to the films of Hideo Gosha, and especially to Sword of the Beast (also known as Samurai Gold Seekers).

Gosha’s career was marked, from the beginning, by disreputable men clutching swords. Born in Tokyo, in 1929, he joined the Nippon Hoso radio company in 1953, and moved on to Fuji Television in 1959. He debuted as a director in 1962, with the television series Three Outlaw Samurai, and his first feature film, released two years later, was based on the series (and had the same name). He may be best known in Japan for his hit melodrama The Life of Hanako Kiruin (1982)—about a childless gang boss who adopts a young girl in early twenties Japan—but fans of period films (jidai-geki) place him among the very best talents ever to grace the genre, including Akira Kurosawa and Kihachi Okamoto.

The sword films of Kurosawa and Oka­moto broke new ground for the genre. Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961) added great humanity and bravado to situations where previously stiff depictions of sword-wielding protagonists once stood. Okamoto explored ambiguity and darkness in The Sword of Doom (1965) and later satirized the conventions of the genre. But it would take Gosha and the rest of his postwar generation of samurai filmmakers to seize the mood of the times and fully champion the outsider-rebel.

Gosha’s point of view, like that of his contemporaries Kinji Fukasaku (Bat­tles Without Honor and Humanity), Seijun Suzuki (Fighting Elegy), Kihachi Okamoto (Kill!), and Masaki Kobayashi (Samurai Rebellion), was colored by memories of World War II, when the price of blind loyalty to the state became all too obvious. At the time of Sword of the Beast’s release, in 1965, currents of rebellion were blowing through Japanese society. The U.S.-Japan Mutual Cooperation and Security Treaty of 1960—which essentially gave America the freedom to use its troops based in Japan however it wanted, even to quell domestic disturbances—resulted in the largest protest by the Japanese public in postwar history. It was almost as if the clock had been turned back to the peasant revolts of the Meiji Restoration (1868), when the common people teamed up with poor samurai to protest the new tax system. During the sixties, there were also generational battles in Japan, as there were all over the globe. The era of counterculture had arrived.

But Gosha was not just a rebel; he was a great filmmaker as well. Sword of the Beast was only his second feature film, but already it showed a mastery of the themes and techniques found later in his much admired Goyokin (1969) and The Wolves (1971). Like many of his films, Sword of the Beast is concerned with rebellion against the Japanese feudal system. Its twin protagonists, the fugitive ronin Gennosuke (played by Mikijiro Hira, one of the three outlaw samurai from the TV series and the film version spin-off) and the gold seeker Jurota (Go Kato), are pitted against each other but also, together, against the very notion of authority itself.

Gosha attacks these lofty heights with a minimum of fuss. Like the rest of his generation, he eschewed the studio setting of the period films of yore in favor of actual locations. The performances in Sword of the Beast are not theatrical and mannered, like those in so many samurai movies before, but raw and ripe with emotion. The results reflect the heady times in which Sword of the Beast takes place.

The story unfolds in 1857, during the waning years of the Tokugawa era (1600–1868). After nearly a century of civil war in Japan, this period was a time of relative peace and stability. Samurai were largely confined to bureaucratic activities and saw little to no action on the battlefield. Japan had begun its race toward modernization with the arrival of Commodore Perry and his “black ships,” in 1853. After two and a half centuries of isolation, the country was beginning to embrace foreign influences. And in 1867, the Meiji Emperor would abolish the sam­urai system all together, in favor of Western-style troops.

As Sword of the Beast begins, Gen­nosuke is on the run, not just from vengeance-seeking pursuers but also from time itself. He’s a portrait of nobility reduced to the status of a wounded animal. But Gosha gives his outlaw one more chance to redeem himself and the caste he represents. This redemption will not be for the sake of an impersonal master-servant system, but for an individual on his own terms.

Gennosuke, then, is the quintessential “outlaw samurai,” not merely a fighter with a sneer and no one to back him up, like in the old days, but a fully realized, psychologized character. Gosha’s break with tradition, however, is not total. In some ways, Gennosuke’s plight resembles the timeworn tales of wandering ronin who, having severed their ties with their master, find saving grace by helping those in need with their sword. The difference in the works of Gosha—and of Okamoto, Kobayashi, and others of this generation—lies in his use of ­gritty, blisteringly intense realism and his interest in his characters’ inner lives.

Sword of the Beast’s flashback structure shows that Gennosuke didn’t start out as a beast with a sword. Rather, the constraints and hypocrisy of society have turned him into a wounded animal on the run. “I want to become a beast,” Jurota’s wife, Taka (Shima Iwashita), confesses—a bold statement for a Tokugawa-era Japanese woman. Gennosuke and Jurota try to cling to higher values throughout, but the animal within drags everyone further away from fulfillment, leading to debasing acts of sex and aggression. Only the promise of gold can redeem this imperfect world and its inhabitants.

There’s nothing flashy about Sword of the Beast’s style, little that resembles the theatrical, ritualized quality common to period films, even now. Instead, Gosha’s film has a rough-hewn look, full of decidedly unglamorous detail and an overriding sense of danger and the possibility of a very real death. There’s no way of knowing how much farther Gennosuke’s path goes past the end of the film. But perhaps a blade just like his can be found at rest in the war museum.

After all, every sword has a very human story behind it. This is one of them.