By 1966, the samurai film had gone from being extraordinary to ordinary. That’s not to say that good samurai films were being made, or would be made in the future, but most of the creative impressions had been made. Japanese film was in the midst of a transformation, such as the gangster films and the Japanese New Wave. Meanwhile, the Zatoichi series was cranking out two-three of decent quality, yet formulaic Samurai films. The genre had not quite run its course, but was a shell of what it had been during the 1950s when Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and others were in their prime. Perhaps in reaction to the fading genre came The Sword of Doom, which is in essence a deconstruction and distortion of the genre. It is refreshing to discover something fresh and innovative from the period in which the samurai film was meandering.
The soul is the sword.
Study the soul to know the sword.
Evil mind, Evil sword
The above words are spoken by Toranosuke Shimada (Toshirô Mifune), an elder, wise samurai instructor. He speaks this after annihilating a horde of opponents, although his actions were heroic and not villainous. He was the “good guy,” had a benevolent mind and hence a benevolent sword. As he is speaking these words, an evil sword lurks in the background, that of Ryunosuke Tsukue, who unquestionably has the evil mind, yet is incapable of acting against Shimada at that very moment.
While I’ve seen quite a few Japanese films, I cannot think of many protagonists that approach the level of pure villainy as Ryunosuke. Iwao from Vengeance is Mine is close, but he is humanized to a certain degree. The best example from the samurai era is Taketoki from Throne of Blood, also played by Mifune in Kurosawa’s loose adaptation of Macbeth. Like in Shakespeare’s play, he plays a flawed and ambitious character who makes mistakes with dire consequences. I cannot think of any characters that reach the malevolence of Ryunosuke. From the first scene in which he is introduced, he kills an elderly man at a religious site on the top of a mountain pass. No reason is given for this assassination, or for any of his later actions. He is the anti-hero in the purest sense. While the audience cannot root for him, we are amazed by his skill with the sword and his moral ambivalence.
While this is a samurai picture, it brings in many elements from other genres. The more notable is from the supernatural horror film, which in some ways is reminiscent of the recent Onibaba and Kwaidan. The first major battle scene has Ryunosuke walking slowly through a mist-ridden forest. He walks as if he is a spirit through the shadows, dispatching ambushers one by one as the camera tracks slowly with his steps. The final sequence, which I will not go into too much detail about, also has a level of spirituality, yet in many ways is Ryunosuke coming to terms with his own immorality in a fit of rage.
The narrative is completely disjointed for a samurai film, especially contrasted with the Zatoichi films. They had quite a bit of reach, and many who worked on Sword of Doom had worked on the popular series. Zatoichi had established a great many expectations. If an accomplished swordsman is introduced in the first act as being part of an opposing faction, it is almost guaranteed that Zatoichi will face him in the third act. In Sword of Doom, Ryunosuke does away with an opponent during a match. That victim’s brother, who studies under Mifune, becomes his enemy. The narrative leads them closer together, and you expect that Ryunosuke will eventually face the brother, Mifune, or both. That does not happen. The ending is extremely satisfying for people who appreciate savagery and experimentation, but probably not for someone who expects another Zatoichi film.
Nearly half of the film takes place in a domestic setting. There is a major subplot about a youngster who is to marry a local noble, but she is smitten by Ryunosuke’s foe. Ryunosuke ends up with the former wife of the man he slew in battle, who gave herself to him on the eve of the battle in the hopes that he’ll let her husband win. Her husband discovers her transgression, and that is what gives him the bloodlust that Ryunosuke reacts to with quick, deathly force. Ryunosuke blames the woman for
the misfortune in his life, forgetting that it was his insistence of sexual favors in order for him to consider her request. He practically raped her. While the action sequences are a combination of Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Zatoichi, these domestic scenes are filmed in the fashion of Ozu from various camera angles that reveal plenty about the characters.
A key reason this has reached cult status is for the battle sequences. By this point the industry, especially the Zatoichi series, was still producing some fantastically choreographed battle scenes. There are three such scenes in Sword of Doom, and they are all innovative and engrossing. As already discussed, the first tracking sequence was short in a single tracking shot. The choreography was impeccable given that it was one, moving take. The second scene involving Mifune was far more violent, and took place in the midst of a heavy snowstorm that enhanced its aesthetic value. It has many more cuts. The action is fragmented and moves quicker. The final scene is by comparison a frantic and frenzied bit of action, with quick and jarring cuts that capture the insane and guttural nature of the fight. The intensity of these scenes stand up against the best samurai battle scenes, before or since.
Film Rating: 9/10
Commentary: New to the Blu-Ray is a commentary with Stephen Prince, author of Classical Film Violence. This is a partial commentary as he focuses on the key plot and battle sequences and ignores the domestic scenes.
The historical title cards are red herrings of sorts. They refer to incidences that do not happen on screen. One thing that Prince does not touch on is that these represent historical events that the Japanese viewer might be familiar with, so they give a sense of historical context to the events. For example, an American western might have a title card of “During the Civil War,” yet the events that take place have little to do with the war itself. Much of the elaborate historical context is not mentioned in the film, and some critics have complained about that. Most Japanese probably were already familiar with the context.
The movie was adapted from a lengthy saga with many character connections. Some of these connections are muddled in the movie. We also assume that since this was a popular saga, that viewers would be familiar with the character connections, which makes for a more oblique and challenging viewing today.
Serizawa, who oversees the pivotal match near the beginning of the movie, was a real historical figure who appears nonthreatening in the film. The real person was actually a ruthless and nihilistic character. Ryunosuke could be seen as a fictional representation of the real Serizawa.
The movie was not well received in Japan. This is partly because of the disjointed narrative. They promise duels that never happen. Nevertheless, it became a hit in the west for the same reasons it failed in Japan. The disjointed narrative helped, as did the evil protagonist and the well-choreographed swordfights.
One interesting observation that Prince makes is about Ryunosuke’s inability to act during the second battle sequence. He hints at a sort of latent sexual overtone, which could be impotence or even an erotic love for his opponent. Yes, he hints at homosexuality. It seems to be a bit of a reach to me, yet the film language can support that reading.
I compared it to Zatoichi a great deal, and the similarities shouldn’t be surprising. Zatoichi actually owes something to the original saga. The character of Ryunosuke is blinded and continues his swordsmanship, so in many ways this was a forerunner to the Zatoichi series.
The commentary is excellent even if it does not encompass the entire film. He gives a lot of information and historical context, some of which is so detailed that it is hard to follow.
The commentary is the only other supplement, which is why as a Criterion this does not get as high a grade as it could have.
Criterion Rating: 8/10