Kedamono no ken (Sword of the Beast) (1965)
Director: Hideo Gosha.
Starring: Mikijiro Hira (Yuuki Gennosuke), Go Kato (Jurata Yamane), Shima Iwashita (Taka), Toshie Kimura (Misa), Kantaro Suga (Daizaburo), Y˘ko Mihara (Osen), Kunie Tanaka (Tanji), Eijir˘ Tono (Minister).
Japanese period film shows how the clan system used and betrayed the samurai
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire movie.
Yuuki Gennosuke sleeps amidst some tall grass plants. A woman walks through the high grass to tell him that she saw the men chasing him. She tells them that he is well-hidden and then she suggests that they have sex. Yuuki takes her up on the offer. He can hear horses approaching, but she tells him that the men are just watering the horses. All of a sudden the men start running through the high grass toward Yuuki. The woman gets up, grabs Yuuki's long sword and starts running away with it. Yuuki sees her running, pulls out his short sword and throws it at her. It lands close to her. She screams for him not to hurt her. They paid her. Yuuki catches up with the prostitute and grabs his sword. This is just in time for his pursuers reach him shortly afterwards. Yuuki has to fight for his life against the men. He is able to get to the horses, jumps on one of them and starts riding away. A friend of his named Daizaburo shouts to him: "Where's your samurai pride?" Yuuki responds: "To hell with name and pride! I'll run and never stop!"
Yuuki Gennosuke of the Enshu, Kakegawa clan, killed Counselor Kenmotsu Yamaoka and fled to his home province. Yamaoka's only daughter, Misa, and her fiancÚ Daizaburo Torio chase him. Gundayu Kastori, clan master swordsman, goes with them. The year is 1857.
Misa and company find Yuuki's borrowed horse at a farm. The owner, known as Packhouse Tora, speaks with their new guests. The newcomers want to pay for the help of all the stable hands to assist in finding Yuuki. For this Packhouse will receive 10 ryo. The stable owner is delighted.
Flashback. Yuuki says that he is a nobody in the clan and the sword is his only road out of obscurity. This, however, is a time of peace. The times have changed, especially since Commodore Perry's fleet arrived (in 1853). Everyone now must reform. "I will rise" says Yuuki. He wants to become a full-fledged retainer.
Back to the present. Yuuki sits in a corner of a room where men are gambling. A gambler runs out of money and Yuuki stakes him by giving him his short sword, worth two bu. The gambler wins, but three prospectors want to take half of the money because the gambler does not want to continue gambling. The result is a fight in which Yuuki becomes the enforcer so to speak. The three prospectors leave. The gambler tells Yuuki that there must be gold on that mountain. Yuuki takes two bu for his part of the winnings and gets back his short sword.
Yuuki takes a small back room in a bar. He tells the owner to tell no one that he is in the backroom. But the bar owner informs Misa and company and they plan to attack him. The owner brings more sake to Yuuki, who asks the man why he is trembling. The fellow throws the wine in his face and Misa's men rush into the room. Yuuki manages to fight them off long enough to jump out of a window into the back alley. There he is met by more forces intent on killing him. Daizburo shouts to Yuuki to act like a samurai, but Yuuki just tells him: "This is butchery." Yuuki is able to get away by hiding underneath a moving hay wagon.
Flashback. Misa remembers back to the night her dad was killed. The Counselor gives back three underlings (one of whom is Yuuki) their petition. He tells them: "You only say you want reform." The three are to retain to their quarters where they will be detained. Yuuki says: "We refuse!" In the dispute that follows Yuuki kills the Counselor, Misa's father. Misa says that butchery is what Yuuki deserves.
Back to the present. The gambling man helps hide Yuuki from his pursuers. He shows Yuuki that he has a pouch of gold dust that he found on a dead man floating in the river. The gamblers says "There's gold in Koshu." Yuuki objects: "But Mount Shirane belongs to the shogunate." There is no poaching allowed on pain of decapitation. Then it dawns on Yuuki that the gambler is hiding him primarily because he needs a body guard to accompany him to the gold fields.
In the mountains the three prospectors hide from a royal patrol of four men. The patrol discovers that someone is currently using the logger's cabin without permission. The patrol confronts the man using the cabin, named Jurata, and Jurata takes out his sword and kills two of the men. He chases another and kills him. The final fellow falls into the river and disappears. But Jurata's problems are not over. The three prospectors want the gold that Jurata has been collecting. The three notice that Jurata has a wife with him who helps him find the gold. The wife tells Jurata: "If the shogunate finds out, our clan is finished."
Back at the area inn men bring in the lone survivor of the four man patrol. A woman named Osen says that she will warm the man by laying nude with him. The other men leave. Instead of laying with the man, she takes a wet cloth and holds it over the man's face until he is dead. Yuuki is in the inn at the time and hears the man's struggle for his life. He investigates and is very suspicious about what happened. Later Osen jumps into the bath with Yuuki, but it's not to get clean. She pulls out a long hairpin and tries to stick it in his head. He is able to stop her. She then begs him not to say anything. He doesn't.
Later Osen tells Yuuki not to go upstream. There is a guy there who is a warrior and he will kill him. Yuuki is not impressed. He tells Osen that he was never able to get what he really wanted in life and was chased out by his clan. "But this time, I'll get what I want."
Jarata tells his wife: "This gold will save our clan." She agrees. Yuuki and the gambler approach the cabin. Jarata confronts him ready for a fight. Yuuki backs down and then leaves only saying ". . . I'll see you again." Yuuki tells the gambler: "I'm a cornered and wounded beast." At night the husband buries the gold he has gathered. When he returns to the logger's cabin the three prospectors let him know that they have captured his wife. Give them the gold or they will kill the wife. Shockingly, Jarata says "I won't give it to you." Then they will take his wife and do what they want with her. Just at this time, Yuuki and the gambler show up. He kills one of the criminal prospectors and the other two run away. Yuuki then calls Jarata a "worthless wretch". The wife starts crying. Yuuki remarks: "This mountain is a dwelling for beasts."
Misa and company arrive at the inn in the gold field area. They learn that Yuuki has gone up river. The pursuers head upstream.
Jarata tries to make up with his wife, but she is not interested. He slaps her a couple of times and says that she is his wife. She retorts: "Am I still your wife after what happened last night?" Jarata tells her to get back to work. At night the wife goes to see Yuuki. He wants to know if she is afraid of him. She says no and adds: "Do whatever you want. I want to become a beast like you." But Yuuki does not want her to become a beast. He talks with her and learns that she and Jarata are on a mission for their clan to get the gold in the area. The gold they gather will belong to the clan. The wife tells him that her husband is a squire without stipend who will be rewarded by becoming a full samurai with stipend.
Flashback. Counselor Yamaoka dislikes Yuuki and the others' plan for reform. But the vice-counselor indicates some agreement with it. Yuuki asks him: "So you approve of our plans for reform?" Daizaburo says that the high ranking samurai cannot put forward the reform program. It falls on foot soldiers like Yuuki to do it. Yuuki takes the vice-counselor's advice and topples the counselor. He and his main supporters thought it was the only way for them to rise socially and economically.
Yuuki reports to the vice-counselor that he slew Counselor Yamaoka. The official says: "You fool!" No one will accept his program after he has killed the counselor. He then tells Yuuki that all his co-conspirators have been killed. Yuuki is furious: "So I am being shut out?" Yes, and Daizaburo will be the next counselor. Yuuki wants to kill Daizaburo, but has to flee before he himself is caught.
Back to the present. Yuuki walks the wife back to the logger's cabin. He tells her that she cannot choose the life of a beast. She is a little afraid to go back because of what her husband might do. When she goes into the cabin Jarata tells her "Taka. Prepare to meet your death!" She is ready for him to cut off her head, but he does not strike. Instead he embraces her and pushes her down with him onto the floor.
Yuuki starts to pan for gold and the gambler is very happy to see it. Then the Misa's clan's master swordsman shows up to kill Yuuki. Just as he is about to deliver the death thrust, the master swordsman is killed with a sword through his back. Jarata has killed the assassin. He then tells Yuuki that his clan is coming and they will wipe out everyone on the mountain. Yuuki starts to leave. Misa and Daizaburo still search for Yuuki. She tells Daizaburo to go ahead and look for the master swordsman by himself, since she is so exhausted from walking. Daizaburo doesn't want to leave her but she insists. While he is away, the two remaining prospectors of the original group of three grab Misa. They assault her. Part of her kimono starts floating down river.
Daizaburo finds Yuuki and challenges him. Yuuki does not want to kill him. He easily knocks Daizaburo down. Both men see part of Misa's kimono in the river. Then they hear her screams. They rush to her rescue. Yuuki is able to kill the two prospectors, but not before Misa was violated by them. The gambler tells Yuuki: "I doubt she'll be so eager to kill you now." Yuuki doubts this and he is right. Yuuki says that he is going and leaves.
Jarata and Taka's clan shows up. Osen finds Yuuki and warns him that he will be killed in an ambush if he continues the way he is going. She tells him to escape through a cedar grove. The reason why she warned him is that she too is to be killed and she wants to go with him. But Yuuki leaves her behind in order to warn Jarata and Taka. The soldiers of the clan find and then drown Osen in the river. Her body floats downstream.
Misa still wants to kill Yuuki. The gambler can't believe it. Daizaburo tells him that this is the samurai way. The gambler thinks this "samurai way" stuff is not much more than an excuse for people to do what they want to do anyway. Yuuki runs into Misa and Daizaburo. The couple want to fight, but Yuuki convinces them to delay their bloodlust for just a little bit so he can finish an important errand. They follow him as he runs back to the logger's cabin to warn Jarata and Taka. Yuuki finds Taka at the cabin and tells her that she and her husband are going to be killed by their own clan. She takes the group to where her husband is digging up the buried gold. They arrive and shout a warning to Jarata, but it is too late. The clan counselor stabs Jarata in the back. Jarata, however, manages to put himself in position to kill the counselor. The clan grabs Taka and threatens to kill her if Jarata does not let the counselor go. This time Jarata wants to save his wife above all else and lets the counselor go. For his compliance, Jarata is slashed with a sword and dies. Then the clan kills Taka. The gambler chases and catches the guy carrying the gold. They both fall into the river. (It is not really clear who, if anybody, gets the gold.) Yuuki kills the counselor. Many of the clan members are then killed with the help of Daizaburo.
Yuuki buries the bodies of Jarata and Taka. Daizaburo tells him that he and Misa are not returning to their clan. The violation of Misa has made that impossible now. Yuuki wants to leave, but wonders if Misa is still going to try and kill him. Daizaburo tells him where she is standing. Yuuki walks right past her without her reacting in any way. Then Yuuki just keeps walking away from the area.
Good movie. The film shows how desperate were the men of the lower ends of the samurai rungs of the social ladder. These men, desperately wanting to improve their condition, backed reform as a way of opening a way to move up the ladder. This strategy as backed by Yuuki does not prove fruitful at all for him and he has to fight for his very life. The film also illustrates how back-stabbing the clan system could be, especially with men of the lower social rungs like Yuuki. But it would be men like these who, when combined with the peasants, would bring down the Tokugawa regime. There is a lot of action in the movie with many chases and many sword fighting scenes.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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