“Sword of the Beast” – Chris Luedtke

Personally, I can’t help but love the samurai genre. Lately, I’ve noticed that the more I see, the more I grow to love the genre. Sure, it’s systematic and often predictable, but who cares? So is ’80s horror. Sword of the Beast is another piece of samurai amazingness brought to us by the demigods at the Criterion Collection. Within its contents, we’re treated to vendetta, betrayal, honor, passion, and mass violence — all things that make the samurai film a genre to be envied.

Sword of the Beast begins simply enough, with samurai warrior Yuuki Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira) awakening in a field. No sooner than he stirs do we find him running for his life from a group of samurai after his head. Gennosuke has committed a terrible atrocity, killing a clan minister in order to achieve reform within his clan. However, Gennosuke’s plan backfired and took a massive turn for the worse. As a wanted man, he flees from those who are after his head. During the pursuit, Gennosuke stumbles upon a group of bandits and outlaws illegally mining the Shogunate’s gold. Beyond them is a powerful samurai named Jurata Yamane (Go Kato) and his wife Taka (Shima Iwashita), who are on a secret mission. Seeing this, Gennosuke decides that redeeming his lost honor may be within his grasp.

Sword of the Beast is a great film achievement. Throughout we are treated to some of the best recorded samurai battles that this critic has ever seen. Director Hideo Gosha makes the battle sequences in Yojimbo look amateurish in comparison to his masterpiece. From the opening, gripping battle and all the way to the final clash of steel, the battle sequences are raw and epic. The first time Gennosuke and Yamane fought, I was held in awe. Sure, the battle was short, but it was just so damn gripping.

The characters in Sword of the Beast aren’t anything new or original. Gennosuke and Yamane are guys who just wanna get the job done. Both know they’re powerful, and both strive for something more. Because of this, they clash. However, neither character is without their flaws; rather, Sword of the Beast lets its characters build off each other. Major events happen with characters that don’t last longer than a scene but have profound impact on both the characters and the story. Even the little things begin to stack up and play a big event. One would think that the bandits and outlaws here are just small fry and easily taken care of like in any other samurai film. This is true, but that’s because they’re physically weak. Their actions still have massive mental effects on the main characters.

Story here is free-form. It doesn’t matter what way we cut it, the film flows like the rivers that so often appear and find a way to work themselves around the small pebbles and big rocks that block its final destination. The only thing I could expect after the first ten minutes of Sword of the Beast was that it had a script and was headed toward an ending. Whether that end was a peaceful bed or raging waterfall, I had no idea. This, in my opinion, is admirable. Sure, I knew that there was gonna be betrayal, sword fights, and vengeance aplenty, but I didn’t know how it was going to effect the final outcome. When a film manages to go above and beyond expectations is when we know we have a masterpiece on our hands.

I can’t find a flaw in Sword of the Beast. It has cliched characters and a few cliched events, but these in no way hurt the final product. I had never heard of this film until recently; I don’t know if has critical acclaim. It certainly has mine. If samurai films are your forte, then Sword of the Beast is not to be missed.

Rating: ★★★★

-Chris Luedtke

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