The title of any given movie is supremely important, as many adage’s state first impressions matter and for any film that title is where we make that impression. Looking at the UK catalog of Criterion, we can separate a movie title into two camps – we have the abstract, like Tarkovsky’s Stalker or Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild and we have the descriptive in Val Lewton’s Cat People or Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. So where does the newest entry into their UK Samurai cannon Sword of Doom fit? Strangely enough, it is both. The jidaigeki (era drama) directed by Kihachi Okamoto and based off a novel of the same name by Kaizan Nakazato is one of the final words on the ronin (masterless samurai) archetype, but before any of that, I need to give a little more context for that opening comment.
In weapon-based martial arts, there is a belief that the better you become in your chosen style the closer the practitioner comes to being a weapon rather than a person skillfully wielding a tool. That concept is the very heart of Okamoto’s Sword of Doom. Toshiro Mifune’s character, Shimada, says, “The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword. Evil mind, evil sword”. To pursue this idea a little further, we have to discuss the first scene of the film. In said scene, a young girl and her grandfather are traversing a mountain path and not wishing to be a burden upon his granddaughter anymore, the elderly Buddhist pilgrim prays to be granted death, at which point the owner of the titular sword (Tatsuya Nakadai) appears and grants the old man his wish as if a specter of death. As aforementioned, Sword of Doom is both abstract and a remarkably accurate description.
Sword of Doom is an episodic film made up of moments like the aforementioned in which Nakadai’s Tsukue murders his way across Japan in the 1860s creating a wave of those who wish to see his evil vanquished, episodes that see him become involved with the infamous, and very real, Shinsengumi. The core of this narrative is a duel between Tsukue and a rival that turns fatal after the wife of his competition begs him to throw the fight, a vendetta that follows him across the country for 2 years. When you compare Okamoto’s to other classics of the genre produced by the likes of Kurosawa and Kobayashi, Sword of Doom is light on its feet when it comes to storytelling. However this is a little more abstract than its brethren, Okamoto is more concerned with how the shadow of death can stick to a person like a stink, more than a conclusive arc – at least in hindsight. Reality is a little more on the nose and goes someway to explain the abrupt ending as the film was part of a proposed trilogy based on Nakazato Kaizan’s protracted 41 volume historical novel that never came to be.
Ryunosuke Tsukue has justifiably gone down as one of the evilest protagonists in film history. Man, Woman or Child, he will cut down anyone, so profound is his immorality his own father, on his deathbed, begs one of his victims to kill his own flesh and blood and gives him the advice on how this should be done. Cinema has its fair share of well-characterised evils, the difference between them and Tsukue is Tatsuya Nakadai.
Returning to that Mifune line, Nakadai has attained a level of martial artistry whereby he and his sword have become one, and while Mifune believes that to work on your soul is to work on your kenjutsu (fencing), all that is left of Nakadai’s Tsukue is his sword. Tsukue the man is an empty vessel, a being without a soul. Any martial arts tutor will tell you to deliver you blows through a person rather than stopping upon impact, Nakadai’s gaze is much the same, he doesn’t look at people, he looks through them. There is nothing in his eyes, no love, no affection, nothing, even looking at his son barely musters a reaction, however when he in combat there is a wry smile etched upon his face implying that the only way he comes to life is in when he gives death to others. Even then, his attitude, his monotone speech pattern and the ease at which he picks a fight hint towards a man who is both looking for and scared of death. Nakadai has an extraordinary body of work, and this understated menace ranks with his best in a role that would be very easy for a less talented actor to make a mess of.
Whether it’s in era drama’s or the violence of Chanbara cinema, films featuring samurai are chiefly judged on the quality of their action and on that basis Sword of Doom does not disappoint – in this, there are three remarkable scenes. The first contains the box art and the most famous shot from the film in which Nakadai stands with his back to the camera as defeated corpses lay on the floor in the dense fog of a woodland. It was only in the watching of the Lone Wolf franchise and recent Uzamasa Limelight (dir. Ken Ochiai) that I could appreciate the craft and artistry of these scenes and the flowing strikes and movement of the film’s star – in this scene – are almost balletic in their flow, a flow matched beat for beat by D.O.P Hiroshi Murai’s camera. The second is much the same only the action revolves around the godly Mifune and it takes place in the snowy night, only the camera remains largely static as Tsukue observes what could be the first equal he has ever met. This scene stings when you think about what the potential sequels could have held. And the last is manic, as an – even more – deranged Tsukue fights his way through a courtesan house burning down. A scene which is kick-started by the ghosts of Tsukue’s past being neatly projected upon the walls in what is one of the many striking images this movie contains.
In Japanese cinema, the Yakuza was often depicted as loveable rogues, in the same way, Samurai was often depicted as moralistic heroes. To see a film that turns away from convention with unbridled nihilism is fascinating. This, a film that also contains one of the greatest actors in Japanese cinema history at the peak of his powers as both an actor and a performer. There is very little out there that can keep pace with Okamoto’s heavy chiaroscuro 1966 outing, and, like I said as I opened this piece, Sword of Doom is one of the highest watermarks in Samurai cinema and a bona fide masterwork… even with its abrupt ending.