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SWORD OF DOOM

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Toshiro Mifune, Michiyo Aratama, Yuzo Kayama, Yoko Naito
Director: Kihachi Okamoto
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 121 minutes
Release Date: January 6, 2015

"The sword is the soul.  Study the soul to know the sword.  Evil mind, evil sword."

Film ****

Kaizan 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.

Kihachi 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.

Ryunosuke 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 bleak future.

Tsukue's 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."

The 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.

Two 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.

The 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.

If 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.

However, 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.

Video ***

"I, Ryunosuke Tsukue, trust only my sword in this world."

The Sword of Doom is presented in its original black & white, 2.35:1 widescreen format.  The high definition 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.

Audio **1/2

The original uncompressed Japanese monaural soundtrack for The Sword of Doom is presented on this Blu-ray.  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.

Features 1/2*

The disc contains an informative audio commentary by historian Stephen Prince (who has done some great work with Criterion on Kurosawa films), the trailer, and a nice booklet.

Summary:

If power corrupts, then absolute power corrupts absolutely.  The Sword of Doom is a samurai film of the highest order, a nihilistic display of ultra-violence and stylized swordplay.  Tatsuya Nakadai gives a brilliant performance as the fallen master samurai, and with Toshiro Mifune portraying his nemesis, The Sword of Doom is a dark masterpiece of the samurai film genre.

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