There doesn’t seem to be much hope for a savior in Sword of the Beast. Everyone is a thief, a murderer, or a coward. Even the great Samurai Gennosuke (Mikijirô Hira) hides in the corn field, hoping to wait out those in hot pursuit. And when he is discovered, he flees instead of facing his opponents, an expedient way of giving up any remaining honor, breaking the Samurai code, proclaiming “To hell with pride, I’ll run and never stop.” But his enemies aren’t much better. Malicious and conniving, they ruthlessly hunt Gennosuke down seeking vengeance for misdeeds in his past. He hides, they follow. A few confusing flashbacks reveal that Gennosuke’s previous indiscretions boil down to a classic case of the ruling authority exploiting the little guy for their gain. Gennosuke’s ambition, hard work, and optimism were taken advantage of, but instead of accepting this mistreatment, Gennosuke fought back and this is where we pick up with him: on the run, fearing for his life. This endless chase takes him to what is essentially the ends of the earth: a river full of gold, prime panhandling domain for anyone brave enough to try, but protected by a brutal warrior who leaves no trespasser unharmed. In this wild domain, Sword of the Beast settles in to make its larger point.
Upon arriving at the river, he inevitably meets its notorious defender, Yamane (Go Kato). The two face off in the shallow water – Gennosuke with nothing to lose, Yamane with everything at stake, both extraordinary swordsmen. It’s quite the spectacle: long takes of impeccably choreographed swordplay, as advertised. And when it shakes out, the two men learn they aren’t so different from one another. Yamane may be a fierce protector, but he too is a thief – stealing the gold for his clan with the promise that he will eventually be rewarded for his loyalty and hard work. Gennosuke, once a victim of the same exploitation, warns Yamane and his beautiful wife Taka (Shima Iwashita). But Yamane is a skeptic and a coward, unable to stand up for himself, unable to protect his woman.
The isolation of the river takes its effect on the two men. Yamane is determined to protect the gold for his clan no matter what. When he arrived, he may not have been so monstrous, but after living in solitude with Taka for so long, his moral compass begins slipping. His desperation to please his clan doesn’t help and he devolves into a shameful mess. Gennosuke skews the opposite direction, hardening into a disillusioned beast with nothing to live for. Yamane is a coward, Gennosuke a beast. The two of them clashing with one another until the true enemy arrives. Gennosuke’s would-be captors track him to the river, but they too are a mess, driven by hatred and a lust for power. Even in the remote environs of the river, far from society, they are unable to abandon their grudge.
Gennosuke is an unlikely Samurai hero, renouncing the code right off the bat and repeatedly, though futilely, favoring civilized conversation over valiant sword fighting in order to resolve conflicts. The superior swordsman, he’s scared of what he will do, scared of what he’s become. But time and again he is forced into battle and unleashes his inner beast. Director Hideo Gosha’s post-war samurai films, Sword of the Beast in particular, are known for pioneering the genre as an ideal forum to present anti-establishment values when historically, Samurai films did exactly the opposite. Instead of offering up an obvious hero fighting monstrous villains, our hero is a beast, his enemies the ruling authority. When Gennosuke heartbreakingly pleads for major systemic change, his is the sole voice fighting for peace in a sea of raised swords. He’s not strong enough to convince the crowd to change course – nobody is. Instead, Gennosuke is forced to destroy everything if he is going to survive. In order to enact justice in a world full of corruption and exploitation, the hero is, by default, the last man standing.
For more on Sword of the Beast’s context within the Samurai cinema canon: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1051-sword-of-the-beast-i-wish-i-could-be-a-beast