Sword of the Beast is a strange one. On the surface, it seems a standard tale of swordplay and vengeance, but there's much more at work here: namely, a meditation on what it means to live honorably as a human, hidden in the guise of an almost Ahabic quest for gold. What better vehicle for such heavy ideas than a samurai film?
The beast of the film's title is a ronin (masterless sumaurai) named Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira), disgraced and on the run after killing a counselor in his clan. He did this on the implicit orders of another superior, a man who then went on to betray him in order to wrest power for himself. Gennosuke's act is thus murky in terms of morality, and it's a good while into the movie before you're able to get good read on him. Even as he's called anything from a beast to a dog to a wolf — sometimes by himself — it's clear that there's a complexity to the character hidden beneath his disenchantment. This development is subtly woven into the 85-minute film; Gennosuke acts far more often than he speaks, and you almost don't realize you're getting to know him even as you are. It's quite a feat, and adds layers to a film whose principal attraction is seemingly its swordplay.
That Gennosuke is so hard to understand is one of his greatest advantages. In the opening scene, he's pursued by a number of men who are confused and frightened to hear him say that he's denounced his name and his pride, thus choosing the life of a beast. (Adding to this is the fact that no one else knows why he carried out his crime — everyone has a skewed perspective of him.) They don't understand Gennosuke, and so they fear him. One of his many opponents calls him a wolf, to which he wryly responds, "Yes, and this wolf has very sharp teeth." Hira's performance is understated enough for lines like this to not fall flat; rather, they give the sense of a man who's stopped caring about how he's perceived, and thus one able to better focus on his own survival, which is constantly in doubt.
And oh, the swordplay. Beast is one-fourth of the Criterion Collection's Sixties Swordplay Classics (of which more later), and it's no surprise: each fight is refreshingly realistic and believable, especially when set against the over-choreographed duels that have become en vogue in the last decade or so. You're able to focus your attention on why these people are fighting, rather than drool over the effects. None of these men want to be in this situation, and there's an almost tangible weight to it each time they battle.
Not every aspect of the film has held up as well, however. Most obvious of Beast's flaws is its audio; some of the effects sound unnatural and distract from the story. Usually this is only for a moment, but sometimes even that's too long. This is forgivable, if not expected, for a movie released in 1965. It's also a minor blemish on an otherwise good, if not quite great, effort — Hideo Gosha went on to direct several more samurai films, but it seems that, unlike Sword of the Beast, they haven't stood the test of time quite so well.