Sword of Doom (Kihachi Okamoto, 1966) – It says a great deal about the stark brutality of director Kihachi Okamoto’s Sword of Doom that even all these years and so many vicious samurai epics later, the film retains its ability to shock, disturb, and enthrall. Made during 60s heyday of samurai flicks launched into new heights of popularity by Akira Kuroswa, there’s very little joy or adventure in the aptly titled Sword of Doom. It’s a harsh, nihilistic, and nightmarish vision of the typical noble (or at least amusingly corrupt) samurai, hinged around an unforgettably nasty character Ryunosuke. Viewed in a marathon of old school samurai flicks, it’s like a punch to the gut amongst a series of playful romps. Viewed in isolation, the movie might be a bit uneven, but it’s certainly still an unforgettable experience. It’s a masterpiece of tone and technique as well as a landmark of world cinema. You know, the type of movie that the Criterion Collection specializes in releasing on Blu-Ray.
Sword of Doom introduces audiences to iconic antihero samurai Ryunosuke (the great Tatsuya Nakadai) with the character hacking an old man to death with a single sword stroke to free his granddaughter to pursue her own path. From those morally uneasy beginnings, the film unfolds rather episodically. The wife of a man Ryunosuke is supposed to duel requests that he throw the fight and spare her husband. Ryunosuke agrees, but notes that for a samurai to throw a fight is a great dishonor, so she must dishonor herself alone with him for it to be a fair sacrifice. The deal occurs, but the husband finds out and is so ashamed that he pulls an illegal move during the duel, forcing Ryunosuke to defend with a death stroke (once again, what a nice guy!). From there, Ryuosuke stirs up trouble with a great master (Toshiro Mifune, naturually), causing Mifune to train a pupil purely to defeat our “hero.” Ryunoskue also joins a gang of outlaws with constant rising tensions that could only end in bloodshed. Indeed the movie does, slowly building up to a psychotic peak in a spectacular blood-soaked finale that draws worthy comparison to the The Wild Bunch.
Kihachi Okamoto’s film was based on a popular Japanese novel that was in turn compiled from a popular newspaper serial. The source is worth noting because it denotes how the film plays. There’s an air of mystery with dangling threads in the movie that comes as a result of a) the director assuming that his audience would be so familiar with the source material that he wouldn’t have to sweat the details and b) the movie was supposed to be the first chapter of an ultimately uncompleted trilogy, so Okamoto developed a rambling episodic narrative meant to be expanded and concluded in further chapters after the flick’s abrupt finale. So, there are ways in which Sword of Doom is incomplete, preventing it from offering the diamond tight structure and satisfaction of one of Kurosawa’s samurai epics. However in a strange way, these inherent flaws almost add to the movie’s unique atmosphere. This nightmare samurai epic offers no comfort or conventional narrative satisfaction, favoring opaque ambiguity that mirrors the protagonist’s coldhearted and cruel core.
There are two major elements of Sword of Doom that enshrine it to timeless classic status. One is Ryunosuke as a character and Tatsuya Nakadai exquisite portrayal of that character. The role stretches beyond the sarcastic cool nihilism of say Tishiro Mifune’s influential Sanjuro who manipulates the world to his will. Ryunosuke is a genuine psychopath who pushes the nature of an antihero to its absolute limits (there’s a reading of the film that sees Ryunosuke battle his demons until he assumes a role of pure evil, but I won’t tire you with the specifics). It’s a bit of a groundbreaking character and performance for its time that holds up remarkably well. The other crucial component is director Kihachi Okamoto, who took the project on as a hired gun for Toho Studios and delivered a movie he’ll always be remembered for. Okamoto embraces the tale’s dark heart and is unrelenting in his nasty portrayal of this world. His use of cinemascope photography is masterful, always creating a sense of unease through meticulously arranged compositions. Even better are his set pieces, which remain as beautifully constructed and viscerally executed today as they were in 1966. In particular, a stunning snow-drizzled showdown staring Mifune and the “one man psychotic army” finale that’s thrilling, sickening, and downright amazing.
Sword of Doom debuts on Blu-Ray via Criterion, which means the disc is stunning. It’s easy to take the company for granted, but they’re work on classic works of world cinema is unparalleled. Though the contrast can occasionally be a little intense (most likely due to limited source prints), this 2.35:1 transfer is a work of beauty. Blacks are inky and depth can seem limitless. Given that the film thrives primarily off of Okamoto’s extraordinary visual construction, the improved clarity and detail afforded in Criterion’s new transfer immeasurably improve the viewing experience. It’s almost like seeing the movie again for the first time and as a result the film impresses all the more. Unfortunately there’s very little in the way of special features. A trailer is included, which amusing as an artifact. Beyond that there’s a nice essay from Geoffrey O’Brien in the booklet and a commentary from scholar Stephen Prince. Both place the film its proper historical context, explain the nature of its production/reception, and explore what makes the movie such an influential and enduring masterpiece of the samurai genre. While that’s a slim special feature selection at least what’s offered packs in a great deal of context and analysis. Besides, the disc is a must own for the movie and transfer alone. If you love vintage samurai flicks, rush out to get it immediately. Hell, I’d consider picking it up even if you don’t. Sword of Doom would be a hell of a gateway into that rich genre.