Sword of Doom (1966)

Class: Staff
Author: Anthony Romero
Score: (4.5/5)
April 17th, 2005 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Director Kihachi Okamoto's brilliantly staged Sword of Doom, a film which really sets the framework for countless “anti-hero” samurai pictures that would follow. Sword of Doom is a very gothic look at a genre which had started to become formulaic by the time Okamoto's film hit the big screen in the mid 1960's. There is still an immense feeling of honor that one gets from the principal characters, but instead of focusing on a young man out for revenge, Okamoto instead focuses on the killer, many would say the story's villain, and in this respect makes his picture stand out from others up to this point. Sword of Doom really excels in a number of areas, including a well woven story, interesting character development, excellent acting which is complimented by equally impressive cinematography, and topped off by Masaru Sato's interesting score for the film.

The plot of Sword of Doom is rather complex, the film starts with Ryunosuke Tsukue out on stroll on Daibosatsu Pass when he comes across an elderly grandfather, recently separated from his granddaughter, Omatsu, who left to fetch some water. Overhearing his prayers to Buddha and the burden that he is on granddaughter, Ryunosuke approaches the old man and quickly kills him. Ryunosuke then heads back to his village only to meet Shichbei, a thief as later discovered. Ryunosuke makes a quick slash with his sword as the thief narrowly escapes, descending quickly up the hillside. Shichbei then comes across the weeping Omatsu having found her deceased grandfather. Meanwhile, Ryunosuke has returned to the village and is immediately bombarded with requests to let Bunnojo Utsugi win against him in tomorrow's tournament. The village is also paid a visit by Hama, Bunnojo's wife, to try and plead with Ryunosuke to let her husband win. Ryunosuke informs her that he holds the tournament as dear as a woman holds her own chastity, asking if she would give that up, a question which eventually leads to the pair having sex that night in an old mill.

Hama's self-sacrifice is for naught, though, as her husband learns of her whereabouts on the previous night and presents her with a declaration of divorce before entering the match. Bunnojo then vows, despite the rules, to kill Ryunosuke during the match. However, his plan backfires and instead Ryunosuke ends up killing Bunnojo while parrying a blow. Hama, left with no place to go, follows Ryunosuke. Two years later, Ryunosuke is found living with Hama, who has given birth to their child, and is employed as part of Shincho's group. Ryunosuke visits Shimada's fencing school, and has a match with Hyoma Utsugi, Bunnjo's brother although this is unknown to Ryunosuke. The lone swordsman wins the match and then leaves after Shimada refuses to face him. Hyomi also leaves and, on his way home, is caught in a sudden downpour. Trying to find shelter from the rain, Hyomi stops outside of a house for shelter and meets Omatsu. Their meeting is cut short, though, as Omatsu is called back inside. It's discovered that Shichbei, the stranger who came across Omatsu when she found her slain grandfather, has taken Omatsu as his own and has left her in the care of a flower teacher as he continues his trade as a thief without rising suspicion from the young girl.

In the meantime, Ryunosuke comes across one of his father's old servants, Yohachi, and learns that the man he faced at Shimada's fencing school was the brother of Bunnjo. Meanwhile, Omatsu's caretaker begins shopping her around to different lords, and ends up sending her to Kyoto. Shichbei confronts her with this, and ends up having to threaten her to learn of Omatsu's whereabouts. That night, as part of a sting set up by Shincho's group, Ryunosuke and the others in the group set out in the snow ready for battle. They mistake their target, however, and end up attacking fencing teacher Shimada, who kills almost all of his attacks while Ryunosuke stares onward, never entering the fray. Shaken by this turn of events, Ryunosuke returns home and quarrels with Hama before eventually going to sleep. Hama, having made up her made, takes out a dagger and attempts to kill Ryunosuke once and for all. Her plan fails, though, and she ends up being chased out into the snow and killed herself.

Later, as fate would have it, Shichbei, Omatsu and Hyomi all met in Kyoto. Hyomi's feelings for Omatsu are instantly apparent to Shichebi, who also appears to approve of the two being together. Eventually, the pair learns of Hyomi's grudge against Ryunosuke and agree to help. It's discovered that Ryunosuke is staying with the newly formed Shinsen group and Omatsu agrees to go there to retrieve information for Hyomi. Hyomi and Shichbei, who reveals the gun that he is armed with, start their plan to attack Ryunosuke when he emerges from the party. However, Omatsu is discovered, and left to the company of Ryunosuke. Alone with Omatsu, Ryunosuke begins to take notice to the shadows as his mind starts to play tricks with him. Just as Omatsu tells the story of her grandfather and the pilgrimage they were on near Daibosatsu Pass, Ryunosuke draws his sword and starts attacking his surroundings. The shadows take on the form of Omatsu's grandfather, Shimada and Hama as Ryunosuke appears to drift into madness. Eventually a fire breaks out, as a flurry of attackers sweep in to kill Ryunosuke. Their numbers are great, and the lone swordsman becomes severally wounded as he continues to fight...

The story of the film is very well constructed; the weaving of what seem to be minor characters during the film's introduction into the latter part of the story is brilliantly played out here. The introduction of the Ryunosuke character, his killing the grandfather, is another great element, as it keeps the audience on their toes for the rest of the picture, and showcases Ryunosuke as being unpredictable. For example, the scenes where Ryunosuke is with Hama and reaches for his sword always seem to generate a reaction from the viewer, despite the fact that nothing ever comes from it. The most controversial element of the story would have to be the closure of the film, though. An abrupt ending that lacks a conclusion and ends as the film is in the middle of the climax. It's a fairly "artsy" final cut to the film, and tends to divide the audience on whether it was a wise choice or not. One can't argue, though, that it defiantly makes the film more thought provoking. The odds of survival for Ryunosuke seem incredibly stacked against him, as he is severally wounded and fighting several other warriors while the surrounding structure is on fire. Not to mention that Hyomi and Shichbei wait outside with the intent to kill the wandering swordsman. What could have been a rather straight forward closure to the picture is instead one that generates a lot of conversation, both positive and adverse, in regards to how Okamoto handled this element of the film. Personally, it's something which bothered me at first, but became something I appreciated more and more after playing around with the notion in my head.

At heart, The Sword of Doom is a very character driven story, and the amount of character development seen in the film tends to compliment this angle well. Ryunosuke's character tends to be more interesting than others, though. As the rest of the cast is slowly developed, the audience seems to realize they actually know less and less about Ryunosuke, as he continues to throw into doubt suggested character elements. The hints at his inner demons, his furious reaction to being referred to as an "outcast" by his wife for example, tell one that he is an incredibly troubled character, but his very dark, and often sinister, nature make it hard to sympathize with him. The other major characters are well developed here, and it's interesting to see how they interact with the unpredictable Ryunosuke. Hama is another good example of this, as the audience sees her character evolve from one who is dedicated to her husband, then her child, and finally a character that is so succumbed by self-loathing that she attempts to kill Ryunosuke. Hyomi is another noteworthy case here, as his character feels distinctly naive when first introduced but slowly develops into a more self confident figure as the film progresses.

What really compliments the diverse characters, though, is the acting, which by all standards is excellent here. Tatsuya Nakadai is at the top of his game as the lone swordsman Ryunosuke, and plays the character perfectly. His cold, distant, stares make Ryunosuke imposing for nearly every instance that he is on screen. Nakadai never breaks character here, while also showing off his craft in very subtle ways. Ryunosuke is a character of few words, and not one to give away his inner emotions, but Nakadai plays with this aspect as he gives away slight hints at the character's inner feelings. Whether it is a slight flaring of his nostrils or the annoyed tapping of his pinky against his knee while asked to let Bunnojo win in the tournament, an action that is showcased well by Hiroshi Murai's cinematography, Nakadai seems to reveal what he can about the character while staying true to the role. The breakthrough moment in the film, though, comes near the closure as Nakadai's portrayal of Ryunosuke going, what appears to be, mad is quite chilling. In fact, paired with the noise of people crying out in pain with each sword stroke, this has to be one of the more unsettling moments in any Toho film. Overall, Nakadai's performance here is meticulously calculated, as the actor truly showcases why his craft is often hailed as second only to that of the great Toshiro Mifune in Japan.

The other principal actors in the film do their part, each bringing a distinct personality to their individual characters. Michiyo Aratama as Hama is well cast, giving a performance with a great deal of self loathing, while her relationship with Ryunosuke has to be one of the more diverse seen in an onscreen "couple." Yuzo Kayama is great as Hyomi, brother of Bunnojo, playing with the naive aspect of his character while still allowing the audience to understand the deep hatred he has for Ryunosuke. Unfortunately, the actor's range is put into doubt here. His portrayal of Hyomi seems to mirror that of Noboru Yasumoto in the 1965 film Red Beard, but his talents are still welcomed here and the portrayal fits both characters in this instance. Toshiro Mifune, as the stern faced teacher Toranosuke Shimada, is, as always, good. It could be argued, given the actor's immense talent, that he is fairly underused here, but Mifune still does wonders with the supporting role that he is given. Yoko Naito, as the seductively innocent Omatsu, is excellent here as well, and the chemistry she has with Kayama is apparent from the start, even if the two actors aren't given a great deal of screen time together. Finally, rounding out the main characters, Ko Nishimura, as the thief Shichbei, does a commendable job, as he pulls off a very charming character who has the distinct aura of a swindler about him. He plays the almost double role of a thief and Omatsu's caretaker very well here, and the amount of love he has for the young girl feels genuine.

When discussing Sword of Doom, it's hard not to discuss the excellent cinematography constructed by Hiroshi Murai. From start to finish, the film is a host to numerous, highly memorable, shots which do a lot to heighten the mood during a particular scene. One of the early examples of the fine cinematography showcased in the movie occurs during the scene where the grandfather is praying to end the burden that he forces on his young granddaughter. The scene is heavy with foreshadowing, and is interrupted abruptly by Ryunosuke, with his first spoken line in the film, as the grandfather moves his head slightly to reveal to the audience that Ryunosuke had actually been present the entire time. Another noteworthy aspect in regards to cinematography is the duel in the fog, as Ryunosuke fends off countless attackers. The camera work during this scene is well established, as the audience is given a nice elevated shot of the battle and is allowed to see the entire fight play out. It's a refreshing scene in contrast to more contemporarily staged fights which rely heavily on fast cuts during the battles. The scene ends with the iconic shot of Ryunosuke walking away, into the fog, as a trail of dead fighters are left in his wake.

Another of those really great instances of cinematography in the film occurs during Hama's long drawn out death scene, a sequence which feels at home in a horror film in the way that Murai establishes it. The use of shadows here is excellent, making Ryunosuke seem even more imposing, while the surrounding pieces of wood placed in front of the camera, almost like bars, really sends home that feeling of being trapped and helpless that Hama is experiencing. It's probably one of the more expertly set up sequences to be found in any Toho film.

As for the soundtrack to Sword of Doom, it's well composed here, as Masaru Sato continues to perfect his craft. His work in Sword of Doom doesn't bring much attention to the score itself, but flows well in the context of the movie. Sato's theme that plays during the snow battle with Mifune does have a distinct feel similar to some of his work in Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966) though.

In closing, The Sword of Doom is an excellent, very dark, film whose only real fault is the division caused by the rather "artsy" closure to the film and the fact that it isn't at the near perfect level of some of the other "heavy hitters" in the genre, such as Seven Samurai (1954) or Yojimbo (1961). By all accounts, though, one of the better movies out there, regardless of nationality.