SWORD OF DOOM
Review by Ed Nguyen
Tatsuya Nakadai, Toshiro Mifune, Michiyo Aratama, Yuzo Kayama, Yoko Naito
Director: Kihachi Okamoto
Audio: Japanese 1.0
Video: Black & white, anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1
Features: Geoffrey O'Brien article
Length: 121 minutes
Release Date: March 15, 2005
sword is the soul. Study the soul
to know the sword. Evil mind, evil
Nakazato's epic novel Daibosatsu Toge
(The Pass of the Great Buddha) is one
of Japan's most famous serials. Originating
in newsprint in 1913, the novel was influenced by the works of Victor Hugo and
was intended to be a meditation on Mahayana Buddhism and the karmic cycle.
Nakazato's masterwork eventually encompassed forty-one published volumes
over the next three decades but ultimately remained unfinished, owing primarily
to Nakazato's death in 1944. The
demise of its author notwithstanding, Daibosatsu
Toge retained its huge popularity with the Japanese masses, who were
particularly fascinated with the novel's strongly conflicted and immoral
swordsman, Ryunosuke Tsukue. Adaptations
of the novel to the stage as well as film began to appear as early as the
1930's, and even such established Japanese directors as Hiroshi Inagaki
(best-known for his famous Samurai
trilogy) attempted their own interpretations on the epic saga.
Okamoto's adaptation, The Sword of Doom
(1965), is among the more stylized and violent cinematic versions of the tale.
A strong influence on the revisionist westerns of Sergio Leone or Sam
Peckinpah, The Sword of Doom was intended to be the first installment in a
series of films centering around Ryunosuke Tsukue, the epic's quintessential
anti-hero. Like the novel, however,
this series was left incomplete, and only The
Sword of Doom itself remains as a testimony to Japan's morbid fascination
with Nakazato's potential demon-versus-bodhisattva hero.
Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a wanderer, a masterless ronin who kills coldly and
without remorse. His world exists
solely as a ceaseless maelstrom of violence set against the backdrop of the
final death throes of Shogunate imperial rule.
If chaos and uncertainty are to be Japan's future with the decline and
fall of the Shogun, then Ryunosuke Tsukue is the shadowy embodiment of that
corruption of the soul announces itself from the very first instance.
A chance encounter with an elderly man praying for deliverance at a
Buddhist shrine upon Daibosatsu Pass is answered by Tsukue's swift and fatal
blade. The wife of an opponent,
offering herself to Tsukue in exchange for mercy and compassion, is ravaged and
her husband destroyed nonetheless. Neither
loyalty nor former camaraderie to this dark samurai can shelter those who would
inspire Tsukue's wrath. Even
Ryunosuke Tsukue's father, upon his deathbed, recognizes the incorrigible
baseness of his son's fallen nature and gravely bemoans, "The sooner he
dies, the sooner people can live in safety once again."
Sword of Doom
opens in 1860 with the Sakurada Gate incident, a massacre of the pupils of the
Kogen fencing school. At the core
of the massacre is a fateful tournament match between Ryunosuke Tsukue, himself
an expelled member of the Kogen Ittoryu fencing school, and Bunnojo Utsugi, the
leading candidate to succeed as the next Kogen instructor.
Tsukue's silent form - mumyo
otonashi no kamae - is however without equal, and Bunnojo's ill-conceived
attempt to use an illegal tsuki thrust
absolves Tsukue of any inclination to still his own blade from a mortal strike.
In the fight's aftermath, an angry ambush by Kogen samurai inevitably
erupts. Yet, this bloody melée is ultimately a grim failure and only
succeeds in driving Tsukue ever further down the path of darkness and madness.
years after the massacre, Tsukue has fallen deeper into disgrace, inhabiting a
barren existence as a hired assassin. In
truth, Tsukue cares not and confesses to no true allegiance to anyone.
He is fearless and supremely confident in his skills, and perhaps only
Toranosuke Shimada (Toshiro Mifune), the master of a fencing school in
Okachimachi, is his peer. But where
Tsukue has embraced the dark, Shimada has embraced the light.
An instructor of the Jikishin Kage style, Shimada recognizes the black
influence that Tsukue's adherence to his cruel fencing style has woven over his
soul. When Hyoma Utsugi (Yuzo
Kayama), kin to the defeated Bunnojo, seeks to avenge his brother, he turns to
Shimada's wise mentorship to help him hone his swordplay sufficiently so that he
might challenge Tsukue.
spring of 1863 anticipates the climactic showdown in Kyoto.
Hyoma has traced Tsukue's movements to a house of courtesans.
Within, however, Tsukue has at last succumbed to his inner demons, and
haunted by the voices and visages of the countless who have fallen under his
blade, he has begun a rampage of destruction, tumbling madly through the rooms,
parrying and attacking recklessly. As
overturned lanterns threaten to consume the inn in a blaze of scorching fires,
Tsukue's fury knows no bounds and he does not even recognize Hyoma's presence in
the vicinity. The ensuing horrific
orgy of violence and bloodshed completes Tsukue's descent into a virtual hell
where, trapped amongst the shadows and flames, he thrusts and stabs wildly at
phantasms and samurai alike, scores of which seem to burst from the very fabric
of the walls. Even the film's
sudden and jarring freeze-frame final shot, leaving Tsukue's fate in doubt, is
an image of whirlwind speed and cancerous madness. Tsukue himself seems to be sneering at death, mocking his
foes and daring the next samurai onward to perish upon his blade.
there is a fault to be found with The
Sword of Doom, it may be that the film does at times feel somewhat
disjointed, its intermittent huge leaps in the narrative leaving viewers
momentarily confused. Furthermore,
the relative importance of various characters is not easily discernible at
first, for these characters disappear and re-appear infrequently and
irregularly. In part, these aspects
of the film are most likely a consequence of not only the overwhelming volume of
the source material itself but also of Kihachi Okamoto's expectations that he
would be expanding upon the story in future installments.
This, sadly, did not turn out to be the case, so The Sword of Doom must stand alone on its own merits.
Under such circumstances, the film will most likely play better to
Japanese audiences already familiar with the epic saga or to highly-attentive
and focused viewers.
its influence cannot be denied, and vast elements of The Sword of Doom can be readily appraised in later films such as
Japan's extended Lone Wolf and Cub
series or even the recent Kill Bill
series. Kihachi Okamoto's stunning
samurai masterpiece may exalt in its existentialistic nihilism, and while it is
certainly not an uplifting film, it is a film that leaves an indelible
impression of the true face of horror and evil.
Ryunosuke Tsukue, trust only my sword in this world."
Sword of Doom
is presented in its original black & white, 2.35:1 widescreen format. The transfer was created from a 35mm composite fine-grain
master print and registers a video transfer rate well over 7 Mbps, on average.
In general, the picture quality possesses strong definition with a good
level of clarity and details. The
black and white contrast levels are quite good with a fairly cleaned image and
only a trace of film stock degradation in a few scattered scenes.
On an aside, the level of violence in this 1960's film is quite shocking,
although the black & white cinematography makes the more graphic moments
more palatable for queasier viewers.
original Japanese monaural soundtrack for The
Sword of Doom is presented on this DVD.
The restorative process removed many instances of clicks and background
hiss, so the soundtrack is quite clean, if not particularly dynamic.
The score is very effective, its searing, occasionally cacophonic chords
striking the perfect tone of eeriness for the film.
is a bare-bones DVD. While the
actual disc contains no bonus features, there is a supplemental leaflet that
contains an essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien.
The essay is a good read and describes the origins of The
Sword of Doom, prior adaptations of the source novel, and the film's
influence on later directors, Japanese and otherwise.