Grim Tale of a Very Dark Knight: “The Sword of Doom”

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Some consider Okamoto Kihachi’s 1966 “Dai-bosatsu tôge” (The Sword of Doom) the greatest of samurai films. It is undoubtedly the bloodiest of the 1960s samurai/ronin films, but is not even my favorite Okamoto ronin movie (that is the only other one I’ve seen, “Kill!,” also starring Nakadai Tatsuya). In addition to a lot of carnage and the two great stars of samurai movies (Mifune Toshiro and Nakadai Tatsuya), “Sword of Doom” contains a(nother) great performance from Nakadai), plus striking black-and-white visual compositions by Murai Hiroshi (who also lensed “Samurai Assassin” and “The Emperor and the General” for Okamoto, both starring Mifune) and an outstanding score by’ Masaru Satô (who scored all the Kurosawa movies between “The Lower Depths” and ‘Red Beard,’ including “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro”).

It is nearly impossible to discuss my reservations about the film without stomping through plot-spoiler territory, and for anyone concerned about having a movie’s plot “spoiled” by discussion/interpretation of what happens, I would advise skipping the rest of my review, except to take heed of a warning about overinterpreting the ending, since the movie was originally intended to be the first panel of a trilogy, so that the inconclusive ending was not intended as a final statement.

———

I think that the English title is quite good. Throughout the movie (at least as translated in the subtitles of the  Criterion DVD, which is part of a four-disc “Rebel Samurai” collection), Ryunosuke, the protagonist of this film set in the last decade of the Tokugawa Shogunate (the movie begins in 1860, the shogunate was toppled in 1868) is repeatedly described by others (including his father or mentor) as “evil.” The other characters seem to be split between those regarding the evil as emanating from the sword and infecting the master swordsman and those regarding the mind of the sword’s wielder as evil. Ryunosuke is definitely not cheery or talkative, and he slays prodigally—but not, in my view wantonly, or with much enjoyment (though there is at least one occasion in which he looks pleased—bordering on a smirk— with his lethal workmanship).

Ryunosuke is grim and unconvivial. Even his technique is exceptionally unshowy: it is dubbed “the silent style.” But, contrary to what the other characters say—including the seemingly sage and savvy master of a sword-fighting academy, Shimada Toranosuke (Mifune)—, it seems to me that Ryunosuke slays people who want to die or who deserve to die (provided that self-defense is a justification for killing someone).

The first killing appears to be inexplicable murder of a genial old man at a Buddhist shrine in a mountain pass. However, the old man was praying for his life to end to avoid burdening his granddaughter. Ryunosuke is like an Angel of Death, answering the man’s prayer, and, arguably, showing compassion, the Buddhist virtue par excellance.

Ryunosuke, who has been expelled from an academy run by his father for reasons that are never mentioned during the movie, is set for a match (with wooden sword substitutes) the next day with Utsuki Bunnojo (Nakaya Ichirô) . Much (inheritance of the school, which Bunnojo needs to support his family) is at stake for Bunnojo; nothing tangible hangs on the results for Ryunosuke. Ryunosuke’s father tells him that he should let Bunnojo win the match. Ryunosuke is not convinced.

Then, Ohama (Aratama Michiyo) Bunnojo’s wife (pretending initially to be Bunnojo’s sister) begs Ryunosuke to throw the fight. His response may be shocking (it certainly is to her), but is not unreasonable. She has asked him to betray his honor, the only thing he cares about, and he challenges her to show that she is willing to do what she asks of him (a stranger with every reason to feel bitter towards the man he is scheduled to fight). Her honor is different in content from his, but if her dishonor is what it will take to save her husband, she is willing.

The next day Ryunosuke slays Bunnojo. However, he did nothing to try to win the match. Indeed, it was judged a draw. Only then did Bunnojo make an illegal (within the rules of the match) attack, in effect after the bell sounded (as in “Million Dollar Baby”). Ryunosuke defended himself from an attack that was motivated by hatred, but he had honored his agreement with Ohama and had made no attempt to harm—let alone kill—Bunnojo.

After that, Ohama warns Ryunosuke that many men from her late husband’s school are lying in wait to ambush him. He refuses to change direction, ready to die, ready to kill, “trusting” to fate. When the first assailants pop out of the forest, Ryunosuke tells them that they have no reason to have a grudge against him, since he was only defending himself from a lethal and illegal charge by Bunnojo. Again, he defends himself—effectively. The path is littered with corpses, but it is not due to any aggressiveness or malice of Ryunosuke’s.

He then hires himself out as an assassin, and those whom he kills may not be yakusa (gangsters). I will stipulate that the film script does not provide reason to consider them guilty of anything. Nor does is provide evidence of their innocence. Ryunosuke may be judged amoral as a hit man (whose loneliness justifies the bushidô epigram that was an invented by Jean-Pierre Melville for the start of his masterpiece, “Le Samouraï” in which Alain Delon plays a French hit man who defends himself).

There is another killing that shocks many (for those who have seen the movie, I mean the one involving slowly crossing a pond in pursuit). This one also involves killing someone who first tried to kill Ryunosuke (by murdering him in his sleep).

Ryunosuke is supporting Ohama and her child whose father may be Ryunosuke or may be Bunnojo, the man who tried to murder Ryunosuke. The two are far from happy together, but he protects her and gives her a home.

nakadaidoom.jpgMuch of the rest of the movie involves Utsuki Hyoma (Kayama Yuzo), the brother of Utsuki Bunnojo, preparing revenge, focusing on the very technique his brother attempted to use against Ryunosuke. Hyoma is a student of Master Shimada (Mifune), who seems a modest and very correct samurai, but who trains Hyoma for vengeance that is unjustified and that will use the cowardly form of attack Utsuki used. That is, I have my doubts about how exemplary Shimada is. He is, nonetheless, without doubt, an effective swordsman, and has his own scene of slaughtering a gang of assailants (during a photogenic snowfall).

The Ryunosuke/Hyoma match does not come about before the end of the movie (which, as I noted, was intended to be only the first part of a three-part-part tale). After conferring with his boss and being ordered to slay the number-one lieutenant of the group, Ryunosuke and Omatsu (Naito Yôko), a courtesan-in-training (and the grand-daughter from the opening sequence), see and hear menacing shadows, seemingly ghosts of people Ryunosuke has slain. Ryunosuke starts slashing the building to pieces, and soon is dispatching more assailants. It is not clear to me whether the assailants are imagined or are part of the putsch by the second-in-command that was anticipated by the boss. (I incline to the latter interpretation.) The battles are successively longer and pile up more corpses, but I don’t see any arc of accumulating guilt in Ryunosuke,, in contrast to Mifune’s Macbeth in Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood,” for instance.

The ending slaughter has been interpreted as indicating that the outcome does not matter. In a way this is so: a warrior is prepared to die, fighting to the best of his ability. The justness of his side was not a matter samurai a considered, and death was (supposed to be) a matter for indifference. And all aspirations are illusions/delusions in the cycle of rebirths…. Still, the inconclusiveness was not the intended end, but only the end of the first part. Presumably, the second part would have opened with a continuation of the completions of the final slash that was freeze-framed at the end of “Sword of Doom.”

And I would note that Ryunosuke asked Omatsu to be still (not shout or try to run away) so that he would not have to kill her. She does not try to run away, and he doesn’t kill her. (She cries out, but at the shadows/ghosts she also senses.) For me, this is another instance of his not killing if there is an alternative.

The Action

I like the very intense Ryunosuke/Bunnojo match. Ryunosuke’s style is to wait for an attack and cut down the attacker. The attack doesn’t come during the match. When it does come, Ryunosuke recognizes and parries it.

The three extended attacks by waves of swordsmen—two against Ryunosuke and one against Shimada—seem to me to go on and on. It seems that superior numbers did not (or could not honorably) matter. I have seen both Mifune and Nakadai cut down wave after wave of attackers in more than a few movies. The Chinese title of what was released in English as “The House of Flying Daggers, “”ten-sided ambush,” is a metaphor of an overwhelming attack (ten in effect equals from all sides, beyond anyone’s ability to counter). Such an attack never occurs in samurai films (nor is it common in kung fu battles). One or two attack and are cut down, then one or two more, then one or two more, then one or two more, then one or two more… The master fighter has little time between these attacks, which come from multiple directions, but never all at once. After some time watching such a battle, even rooting against the attackers, I want to advise them to change tactics and make an all-out attack from multiple directions.

Obviously, others enjoy carnage that seems to me to go on and on and then on some more. There is a battle at the end of Okamoto’s “Kiru” (Kill!), too, but during it, the main duel is one of great originality, not the long succession of cutting down lone attackers or pairs of them in rapid succession (with a single blow, sometimes a single blow dispatching two attackers). As I noted, some regard “Sword of Doom” as the greatest action samurai film. The action is too repetitious for me (like explosions in John Woo movies), even if the setting and visual style of each of the three big multiparty fights differ.

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I’m more interested in the characters. Nakadai’s exceptionally talented and exceptionally alienated master swordsman is (to me) a very interesting character. Nakadai was an agile action hero, but like other great screen actors (including Mifune, though I was thinking of Gary Cooper) “says” more with his eyes than with his mouth (that is, spoken lines). Nakadai did not have to say what he thought or felt. It was already visible. His performance as Ryunosuke, is one of many great Nakadai performances.

I don’t know whether Japanese audiences say Ryunosuke as evil. I suspect not in that he was a very popular figure long before Okamoto’s movie was made (there have been at least four other movie versions; the character was introduced in a newspaper serial in 1913 and sufficiently popular to continue for three decades, to be turned into a lengthy novel, etc.). What I see in Ryunosuke is not what the other characters say about him. This does not make the movie any less interesting. (What does is the length and lack “of variety of the attacks.) But I consider the plots of both “Sanjuro and “Kiru” more interesting and the tactics devised in them more interesting than cutting down attacker after attacker after attacker.

The Criterion DVD/Bluray has an exceptionally fine audio transfer (from a monaural original) and a fine visual transfer (one should not take that for granted, though Criterion’s record tempts one to). The commentary track laid down by Stephen Prince explains some of the plot condensed from the serial that ran 18 years and was still not done when its author die and is very good on the visual choices, including wide-screen deep-focus. Prince also informs listeners that though Okamoto is known in the west for his samurai movies, they made up a minority of his output as a director. What he did in other genres has just not been imported here.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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