The only way to win is not to play?

japan, 1965, japanese


Sword of the Beast

Samurai films have often been called the “Westerns” of Japanese filmmaking. It makes a lot of sense. They contain many similar elements, and directors have been influenced in both directions. For every Kurosawa homage to John Ford there’s a Sergio Leone remake of Kurosawa. Both genres are fundamentally about myth making. But, at least in this film, there’s a major cultural difference in the nature of that myth.

This is the story of Gennosuke, a low-level Samurai who kills one of his superiors, after having been manipulated to do so. He thinks he’s striking a blow for positive reform, but really he’s just helping an unscrupulous rival get more personal power. In the aftermath he becomes a hunted Ronin, determined to live “like a beast”. The rest of the film is about his attempt to survive, and a similar situation to his own that he accidentally wanders into.

I’m going to spoil the end here, but Gennosuke “wins”. At least on a basic level. He kills the people who are hunting him and isn’t killed himself. He’s still a homeless Ronin, but he receives no moral comeuppance. This is in stark contrast to most Westerns I’ve seen, or most of American filmmaking honestly. It’s totally ok in American cinema to have anti-heroes. In fact in recent decades we might even prefer them. But society still demands that their “crimes” are ultimately punished.

So, if you’re a character who is the protagonist, but you did something “wrong”, you don’t get to fully win. Audiences demand that there is some personal cost. You win, but you die at the end. You win, but your loved one dies. You cannot escape totally unscathed. In that context, this film is kind of shocking. Sure, Gennosuke was manipulated, but he still murdered a minister, and a whole bunch of other people got killed along the way. And yet, he’s ultimately the “hero”. We just feel bad for him, and root for his success.

I’m not sure what it says about the two societies. On one level I do think it points to an overly “moral” America. One that struggles with nuance. As I’ve been discussing recently, that is a very top-of-mind topic for me, so perhaps I’m seeing it everywhere. But our need for “justice” to prevail, even if it’s perverse justice, is a very interesting one.