Kedamono no ken - Sword of the Beast (1965) - Hideo Gosha
Sometimes you watch a samurai film and think how very easily it could be made into a Western. Sword of the Beast most likely would have wound up a Hollywood Western if it had come out a few years before. As it is, we can just watch it and draw our own comparissons, and wonder how Clint Eastwood, Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, or anyone else might have handled the role.
The story is simple like so many Jidaigeki stories are. We begin in the middle of action, a common staple of most Westerns as well. Gennosuke (Mikijro Hara) is on the run and he is hiding in a field. He is found out and the blood starts pouring. He kills his pursuers, steals a horse, and vows to run forever. We see who is after him, and instead of a usual bounty hunting samurai, we see a somewhat timid samurai and his fiance. These are his two main pursuers, they want this man for what he did to the woman's father (who was the leader of his clan). It is vital to the story that it takes place in the mid 19th century. This is a modern samurai tale, much like Peckinpah's Westerns all seemed to take place at the end of the frontier. This way of life is changing rapidly, Gennosuke knows it, but the counsellor whom he kills is stubbornly unaware.
So the chase continues, there are female assassins, prostitutes, and of course a slew of gold prospectors. Now this last hunt for gold is enough to make it ring a familiar bell to nearly any Hollywood Western, and if you look at the time it is set in, the great San Fransisco gold rush was occuring almost simultaneously. Well Gennosuke finds a man who helps him out, but is intent on panning for gold, only he wants a bodyguard. Well if he's going to run for the rest of his life, he might as well get some money. So now we have our second major plot break. The film is pretty equally divided into the time before the mountain, and the time on it. With this great mountain which is illegal to pan on, you know that it is the end of the line, likewise what pursued samurai won't eventually have his pursuers catch up with him?
Here's where the story develops those wonderfully complex relationships between good and evil, brilliantly realized in the Mann-Stewart Westerns. There are no real bad guys amongst the major characters, only groups and ideas are bad. Clans are bad, unquestioning loyalty to them is bad, but people aren't. People do what they think is best, even if others can't agree. Gennosuke is guilty of murder, but he believed it was the only way to get his reforms, which we're led to believe are likely to go through in the wake of his actions. He is a victim however, and the people out to get him have their motives, even if the old bastard probably deserved to die. Even the young couple panning for their clan on the mountain have their reasons. It is one of the most powerful moments in group mentality when the man chooses to protect his (clan's) gold over his wife's life. He rationalizes it, and inhuman as it may sound you can't help but see his point. It is the nature of him being a "beast" that explains the title. Gennosuke becomes a beast, someone who's sole purpose is survival. He kills when he has to and has no more conscience than a wild animal. It is only on the mountain, and with the help of the people he meets that he is able to vindicate himself and truly become human again.