Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Gosha Double Feature: Sword of the Beast (1965) and The Wolves (1971)

Mikijiro Hira in Hideo Gosha's Sword of the Beast (1965).

Hideo Gosha is apparently considered one of the masters of the samurai film. Tonight I watched Sword of the Beast, directed by Gosha in 1965. While I did like the film a lot, it seemed to be very conventional, following the standards of the genre, and Gosha seems somewhat heavy handed compared to Kurosawa and Kobayashi (the only other two that I have really seen any samurai films from). It's the same feeling that I got from The Wolves, a yakuza film made in 1971, and the only one of Gosha's other films that I have seen.

The Wolves and Sword of the Beast also share some of the same themes, they are both about where the line is drawn between being loyal to one's gang or to oneself and the main characters of both films are betrayed by the ones they trust. The yakuza (Tatsuya Nakadai) in The Wolves who after being released early from prison realises that his former boss' death might not have happened the way it is told, and his new boss, his sworn brother, may not be so innocent. And the samurai (Mikijiro Hira) in Sword of the Beast who is told he will get a faster rise to the top if he kills a counselor but realises after it is done that he has been used and is now a fugitive.

All of this is apparent from the first frame in both films, in The Wolves the main character has to be convinced that this is the case by other characters, and in Sword of the Beast it feels like you're being beaten over the head with it as no less than four characters other than the samurai realises that the fate of the samurai is also their own. This doesn't lessen the enjoyment of watching Sword of the Beast though, it still is a beautifully shot chambara with great performances from Mikijiro Hira, Go Kata, Shima Iwashita and the Gosha and Kinji Fukasaku regular Kunie Tanaka. The same cannot be said of The Wolves, which is much too slow and unengaging, and with a performance by Tatsuya Nakadai that can best be described as sleepwalking. He is far outshined here by Noboru Ando and the aforementioned Kunie Tanaka. How this would be considered the best, or one of the best, yakuza films ever made is beyond me.

Tatsuya Nakadai on the cover of Animeigo's dvd release of The Wolves (1971).

I read a description of Hideo Gosha's films as being emotional like Kurosawa's and containing the politics of Kobayashi's, and judging by these two films the description is correct, Gosha's films are just more standardized and less refined. As a period sword fighting film, Sword of the Beast is great though and enough to make me want to see more of his samurai films. As for 1970's yakuza cinema, I still have some more Fukasaku to explore.