Dedicated to Okamoto Kihachi: 1923-2005
Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai) wanders Japan, without master, without pity, without soul. A fearless warrior and master of the blade he strikes down anyone who stands before him, without question or regret. A fencing exhibition is soon to take place at his school and while heading there to take part he is confronted by Ohama (Michiyo Aratama) who pleads that he let her husband win the match. Ryunosuke informs her that this he cannot do and it would take a far greater gesture to even make him consider it. Ohama gives herself to him and the next day he enters the exhibition, killing her husband Bunnojo Utsuki (Ichiro Nakatani), after an illegal sword thrust on Bunnojo’s part.
Soon afterward Bunnojo’s younger brother, Hyoma (Yuzo Kayama) sets out to take revenge upon Ryunosuke, taking up residence near a fencing school run by master, Toranosuke Shimada (Toshiro Mifune). Here he is informed that Ryunosuke is an unstoppable fighter and that if Hyoma has any hope of defeating him then he must practice diligently and master the only technique capable of winning. This isn’t the end of Ryunosuke’s problems as soon the group of revolutionists that he belongs to begin to grow weary of him, threatening his existence.
Taking place during the Edo period, between the spring of 1860-1863, The Sword of Doom (Daibosatsu toge – which leaves this as quite a different translation) focuses on a time when the Tokugawa administration was falling apart as Kyoto became involved in heavy turmoil. This stemmed from lower ranking samurai – roshi who broke away from their clans, after being disparaged by the arrival of the black ships who were overpowering Japanese forces. When a number of Japanese surrendered to the foreign invasion anti-shogun sentiments began to form, causing many samurai to flee to Kyoto and take up a revolt. During the third year of Bunkyu (1863) with the emperor’s supporters in bloom a great disturbance had grown when these roshi, ever loyal to their emperor began leading attacks on shogun officials and condemning foreign intrusion. It was at the time when in order to maintain control another group of master-less samurai set up the “Shinsengumi”, who despite a few inner turmoil’s themselves managed to drive out opposing forces, though their group wouldn’t stay together for long.
The Sword of Doom uses this historical backdrop as its basis, creating a serious mood in a turbulent time and while the above might not seem as important it duly is as it takes us up to that important year when the Shinsengumi would prove to be a major player in Ryunosuke’s fall, not to mention his own madness.
Much of what makes The Sword of Doom work is its ambivalence, metaphors and spiritual undertones which co-exist alongside some fascinating characters. The films’ insight into the true evils of this world and in this case its ties to the sword is an element not too forced or over elaborated but one which turns the question of good over evil on its head. The central figure of Ryunosuke is questionable; is he evil, an angel of justice or just plain mad? Misguided might be a better word, a victim to the sword he carries that has taken over his mind, forcing him to abuse his power. The film demonstrates a frustrating futility toward him as had he been able to use his powers in other ways he may have been able to bring far more peace to the world than destruction. But it’s that very nature, the bonding of samurai and sword that forms a major crux in this tale; both serve each other, becoming one in the same. Okamoto uses this device to try and get to the heart of Ryunosuke as he illustrates this in philosophical style.
It’s not the first time that this story had been translated. Kaizan Nakazato’s story had enjoyed a long life, spanning thirty years as a newspaper strip up until he passed away. During that time the story had been adapted for stage and film but the first time it would make any kind of impression was when Okamoto’s telling surfaced. The director clearly shows a sense of what he wants, being that the story was never actually completed he never took it upon himself to resolve several issues that lie within. This brings us back to its ambiguity, something which either bravely garners its success or makes it fall. That depends on the viewer as the film is largely open to interpretation – Okamoto merely pieces what he can together in a visual style that is often belligerent. But it’s this questionable story that ultimately leaves it as a far more interesting piece of work, where we the viewer can look beneath the surface and pick out spiritual motifs and inclining factors. It’s often jarring, its pace fluctuates from slow character burdening to the epic clashing of swords while it uncouples its mysteries.
Cinematographer, Hiroshi Murai contrasts various pieces of Okamoto’s film. Each character and location is set and lit in ways which captures their essence better than a thousand words could. Murai’s compositions when leading fierce struggles or simply depicting a quiet moment add a defining quality, with each encounter being visually unique, an assortment of angles and beautiful attention to detail make this a visual treat, from its opening rural act to its glorious snow covered terrain.
Tatsuya Nakadai appeared in no less than five films in that year, one of which was Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another but his performance here eclipses that already mentioned. He’s given a far greater task of adding a natured performance to his character and it’s a role he carries well. He adds that fearlessness to the role along with a hypnotic surge and sense of impracticality toward his actions. Nakadai epitomizes such evil qualities and stands as one of cinema’s greatest foes in a leading role, yet despite his barbaric nature it’s difficult to truly hate him. This is where Nakadai’s humanity to the role gives life to someone deemed to have none at all, thus creating the argument of what it is his character is really all about. Though The Sword of Doom is Nakadai’s for the taking one must not rule out the presence of the great Toshiro Mifune, representing a finer balance of the arts in a well mannered, respected character role who challenges the ethics of Ryunosuke. Coming into the film fairly late his role is nevertheless important and further sets up a struggle for Ryunosuke which will challenge him both physically and mentally.
With a wonderful supporting cast The Sword of Doom never fails to engage, plot contrivances or not. As a character piece it is executed quite marvellously and its plentiful moments of action are more than enough to appease the most hardened chambara fan.
Criterion keeps it simple this time. The DVD comes without any bonus material, aside from a booklet featuring an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien, which offers some nice facts. I find things like this however to be little freebies and are not uncommon with many DVD releases so I’m not going to award any marks for it as it doesn’t really make up for a baron disc. Criterion has knocked $10.00 off for this release though, making it an almost standard RRP.
The Sword of Doom is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and is enhanced for wide-screen televisions. The transfer has been taken from a 35mm fine-grain master and has been cleaned up to provide optimum effect. The film source is naturally grainy, an effect which has been maintained with a slight amount of Edge Enhancement having been applied. Black levels and contrast is spot on, with white levels standing out remarkably well, particularly during the films’ latter snowy look, though at other times they appear a little over processed.
The original Japanese mono track is surprisingly effective. Masaru Sato’s often raucous score is given plenty of additional life here and the fights which ensue are filled with plenty of atmosphere. Cries and steel blades are effortlessly realised and little subtleties here and there are picked up. The track is crisp and in all this delivers far more than you might expect.
Optional English subtitles are included and these remain free from error.
Nothing aside from an inlay booklet, mentioned previously.
The Sword of Doom is an intriguing film that requires a little patience. Don’t expect everything to be spelled out for you, after all this is Japanese cinema and this is one samurai film that has a lot more hidden up its sleeve. Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance is a revelation and Toshiro Mifune provides a great foil. Okamoto is perhaps best remembered for this and it’s certainly not one to go to waste. A fitting tribute to his memory.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum