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Where EAST meets the Northwest

TARNISHED. Kihachi Okamoto’s 1966 classic Sword of Doom explores the premise that a tainted sword reflects the tainted soul of its wielder, a theme of samurai culture. (Photo courtesy of Toho Co., Ltd.)

From The Asian Reporter, V16, #30 (July 25, 2006), page 11.

An evil mind, an evil sword

Sword of Doom

Directed by Kihachi Okamoto
Produced by Sanezumi Fujimoto, Kaneharu Minamizato, Masayuki Sato

By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter

A central theme of samurai culture is the intimate connection between a warrior and his sword, expressed in the statement, "A warrior’s blade is his soul." Most often, this means that a samurai must never be without his sword, for he is incomplete without it. Kihachi Okamoto’s 1966 classic Sword of Doom explores another corollary of this premise, that a tainted sword reflects the tainted soul of its wielder. Or, as Toranosuke Shimada (Toshiro Mifune) puts it, "An evil mind, an evil sword." Although the plot is intricate and the action occasionally quite bloody, Sword of Doom is undoubtedly Okamoto’s finest film, and its deep, dark themes transcend the fantastic action sequences to create a samurai classic that must not be missed.

Set during the backstabbing period of political infighting known as the Bakumatsu period, Sword of Doom centers around the preternaturally gifted, and heartlessly determined, masterless samurai Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai). After a seemingly unrelated opening scene displaying Ryunosuke’s abject cruelty, the dark-hearted samurai’s father confronts him about his upcoming duel with Bunnojo Utsugi. Although Ryunosuke has little to lose or gain, his father explains, a victory by Bunnojo means he will ascend to the head of his fencing school, while a loss will mean disgrace and penury for him and the Utsugi family. Ryunosuke’s father urges him to let Bunnojo win, though he could defeat the man easily.

Even Bunnojo’s wife Hama pleads with Ryunosuke to throw the duel, and she allows herself to be ravished by Ryunosuke, hoping this will convince him to lose. This rape scene is among the film’s most memorable, set in a grain mill, its mechanical pounding grimly echoing Ryunosuke’s deplorable actions. The next day, Ryunosuke wins the duel easily, then is ambushed by Utsugi’s men as he departs, also winning easily in the film’s first brilliant one-against-all action sequence. Throughout, his cruelty is emphasized by the words of other characters, his own dead stare providing ample evidence of his emotional absence.

The film continues several years later, with Ryunosuke and Hama (divorced by Bunnojo after the mill incident) living in Kyoto with their child, barely scraping by on Ryunosuke’s ill-gotten gains. His past has begun to catch up with him, as he soon crosses paths with Bunnojo’s brother Hyoma (Yuzo Kayama), along with Omatsu (Yoko Naito), a forlorn girl from the film’s opening scene. Hyoma is being trained by Toranosuke Shimada, who knows the secret to defeating Ryunosuke’s "silent style," and Mifune’s solid performance as Shimada shows the virtuous side of samurai, further punctuating Ryunosuke’s evil nature.

Engaged in the political machinations of the Shincho group, pursued by both Hyoma and Omatsu’s guardian, Ryunosuke finally falls prey to his fate. Beset by phantoms of his victims, Ryunosuke flails blindly around a teahouse room, the torn screens revealing actual pursuers: renegade members of the Shincho group. This leads to an epic battle between Ryunosuke and an endless stream of Shincho rebels, his skill and persistence on bloody display.

For all the intricacies of the plot, the ending will leave many questions unanswered, and its unresolved nature points towards the less traditional samurai films emerging during the late 1960s in Japan. Nakadai’s blood-chilling performance is also indicative of the less sympathetic samurai portrayals to come, at the same time offering proof that excellent acting can inform the audience better than plot or overt explanation ever could. One cannot easily forget the dead look in Ryunosuke’s eyes, his callus disregard of everyone close to him, and his relentless pursuit of victory with his blade.

One never feels that Nakadai carries the film, as his performance is matched by Okamoto’s deft hand. The latter’s skill shows in the gorgeous cinematography, his elaborate, if sometimes disturbing, choreography of fight scenes, and his ability to make the pure evil of Ryunosuke seem subtle and understated. Sword of Doom is a samurai film that will satisfy virtually every viewer, from the swordfighting aficionado to the literary intellectual. Its convoluted plot and bloody excesses may turn away the casual or new samurai filmgoer, but everyone else is strongly encouraged to catch this timeless film on the big screen, where the physical dimensions of the action match the broad sweep of its theme.