Samurai melodrama, and not bad. Gennosuke Yuki (Mikijiro Hira) is a young, low-ranking samurai who is ambitious and wants to reform his clan. It's 1857 and Perry's black ships have already had an impact on feudal Japan just by sailing into Tokyo Bay four years earlier. Gennosuke's naivety and ambition lead him to kill his clan's counselor. He had put his trust in a clan leader who had implied this was needed, but he has been betrayed. Now he's a hunted ronin with a price on his head, pursued by Misa, the vengeful daughter of the murdered counselor, and her betrothed, plus a small retinue of clan warriors and a master swordsman. "To hell with name and pride," he says. "I'll run and never stop."
After more betrayals and deadly sword fights, he encounters Jurota Yamane (Go Kato) and Taka (Shima Iwashita), a married couple who are illicitly panning gold from the Shogun's mine for their own clan. At first he is determined to take the gold from the man, an ambitious samurai like he was who has put his trust in his clan leaders. "I can't afford to to live by my conscience," Gennosuke says. "My opponent is a warrior, it's true. But it's up to me whether I defeat him and take his gold, or am defeated by him and left to die a dog's death in the hills." Bandits and the ruthless intentions of an advisor and his men from the other clan make Gennosuke find he hasn't entirely lost his sense of honor. At one point Taka tells him, "I want to become a beast like you," but she finds that, ultimately, although her husband and Gennosuke are both flawed, they make sacrifices that redeem themselves.
In other hands, this might have been high drama with moral overtones. What we have, in my view, is effective melodrama which is satisfying to watch. I wouldn't consider Mikijiro Hira a compelling actor. He's good looking in a Hollywood kind of way, but for me he just can't quite bring the anguish over the line. Still, he does a competent job, and so do the other actors. For me, Go Kato brought a lot of complexity to his role, agonizing twice in having to choose between the gold and his wife. His choice the first time reveals weakness; the second time, love and strength.
The black-and-white movie is photographed with some great sequences, including a near-fatal romantic encounter in a chest-high field of grain that opens the film. There's also lots of rushing and running through dappled woods. In fact, the whole movie is really, one way or another, centered on the ever-present pursuit of Gennosuke, with his enemies, or those who become his enemies, getting closer and closer. The swordplay is frequent enough for those who like flash-and-slash action, but it's low-key enough not to turn the movie into just another grade B samurai flick so beloved by both Japanese and American audiences. Fatal slashes are implied, not shown, and there are no flying heads or arms.
Sword of the Beast, for all the melodrama, is in my view a cynical look at such concepts as loyalty, duty and honor. "Look at her, the true daughter of a samurai," says Gennosuke at one point after one of the women has been abducted by the bandits. He finds her by the side of a stream adjusting her torn kimono. "She's been violated, yet she still remembers her appearance." Ah, the code of conduct expected of the superior classes. I don't think Hideo Gosha meant this statement with any particular admiration.
The DVD from Criterion looks just fine. There are no extras. The case includes a printed essay by a fellow named Patrick Macias, who is identified as a commentator on Japanese film. The DVD is part of Criterion's four-film collection, Rebel Samurai. It can be bought separately.