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.