The Sword of Doom is a brutal 1966 samurai film made by Kihachi Okamoto. It’s sanguine, dark, and brilliantly shot by Hiroshi Murai. It’s not a terribly high brow movie and definitely not a sterling example of jidaigeki (period pieces focusing around samurai) but it contains brilliant moments of “real grunt-and-groan sword-swinging” (as the 1967 New York time review says.) This same article referred to the Tarrantino-esque climax at the end of the film as being the most “chop-choppingest climax, ever.” And this scene is without a doubt really good: paper screens sliced through into tatters, sprays of bitumen-black blood dappling tatami mats, kimonos ripping, keen blades whistling through the air. The voyage however, leading up to this particular scene is slightly ill-plotted (mostly because it was planned to be many movies based on a episodic novel), but overall immensely entertaining.
The mazy plot follows Ryunosuke Tsukue, a professional swordsman who practices a strange method of fighting known as Kogen Ittō-ryū, which heavily uses Gedan-no-kamae (a stance using a lowered sword to throw off an opponent, also known as Fool’s Guard in German swordsmanship.) The early fencing scenes are stellar, focusing on swordsmanship as a craft, rather than a cruel practice. However, as a fencing teacher, played by Toshiro Mufine ,warns, “An evil mind makes an evil sword.” The sword is a facet of the soul, an extension of who somebody is; their ideals, morals and so forth. This film shows a certain reverence towards swordsmanship in numerous scenes. In these scenes, feet are placed gingerly in front of one another while beautiful dust-filled beams of light stream onto the scene, making the room feel palatial. Another name for Tsukue’s unique swordsmanshp, mumyo otonashi no kamae, aptly describes these scenes. Mumyo otonashi no kamae means “form without sound or light” and this perfectly encapsulate the tension buzzing through the air, white-knuckles on katanas, sweat beading on brows, pure and visceral sensory detail giving life to a scene. It is a strange silence in between cacophony.
The film starts with Ryunosuke – looking positively tenebrous, rice-picking hat cocked over head – killing an old man who has been praying for death at the top of a mountain. He walks away with no feeling, a little bit of perverse glee kinked into his grin. We learn that Ryunosuke is about to fight in a fencing competition that determines who can stay in his fencing school. Needless to say, the fencing competition goes wrong and Ryunosuke, chopping down faceless ronin as he goes, traipses across the countryside, eventually joining the Shinshengumi, a semi-official police-force that was started to fight for the Shogunate (since this film takes place during the Bakumatsu period during the late 1860s.)
Form without shape or light.
This film isn’t particularly swashbuckling, despite being packed with excellent action scenes. Unlike many of the great Akira Kurosawa or Masaki Kobayashi films, it lacks a likable, memorable character although Ryunosuke is suppoused to be unlikable and unconscionably evil. Tatsuya Nakadai (a great Japanese actor who starred in many of Kobayashi’s films, especially The Human Condition and Hari-Kiri) brings the film together with an intense performance of an unhinged, blood-thirsty man who stares at the camera with a thousand-shaku-long gaze. This is especially brought forward by a classic Noh soundtrack of squealing bamboo flutes and harsh percussion that is punctuated with very Western brass stabs. This adds to the unease of seeing Nakadai’s twisted character. While Nakadai tries his damnedest, this movie fails to escape convention entirely, it’s strange stilted revenge story that pales in comparison to the previously-referenced Hari-Kiri in which Nakadai uses his thundering voice to incredible effect as he slowly calculates an elaborate revenge scheme against lords that have wronged him.
The film, with its burbling pace and serpentine plot, is excellent in the aforementioned chop-chopping. The action is campy and unrealistic. The stage-deaths are very obviously fake. Quick inserts are added to show blood shooting out of wounds and various limbs falling to the floor. However, the film is tightly choreographed so as to partially disguise the artifice of these scenes. Either way, watching Nakadai glower like the Devil and fell thousands of men is great fun. It’s fake enough to have a dose of levity, to avoid heaviness and be a good, yet exceedingly dark, time (much unlike the aforementioned The Human Condition, a nine hour masterpiece of misery I will one day get to reviewing.) However, this is a well-done, well-choreographed, well-acted, and expertly shot and directed samurai film that will never rank high on the list of essential Japanese films. It isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. It is an extremely well-done cash-in with a powerhouse performance by Nakadai (as always) and incredibly cool fight scenes. It also includes a brief scene of Toshiro Mufine chop-choppery, as well as many gently rolling dolly shots of Nakadai’s character cutting down unwitting henchmen. If between the superior films of Kurosawa and Kobayashi, you have two hours to devote to a stylish, yet somewhat cliché and overly confusing samurai film, watch this one. If you haven’t spent any time on Japanese cinema, watch Seven Samurai, Hari-Kiri, Yojimbo, and The Human Condition, amongst others. The Sword of Doom is worth watching, but one you can watch after these.
Words by Luca Foggini. Pictures by Hiroshi Murai and Kihachi Okamoto.