It may not be the fourth installment of Indiana Jones, but Judge Joel Pearce claims this film isn't short on action, bad guys, or doom.
"I don't fully understand your sword form. You draw out your opponent. Then, in an unguarded moment, you cruelly…And the cruelty doesn't stop with your sword. It seems to have seeped into your mind and body. It frightens me." -Ryunosuke's Father
Back in 1965, while the American entertainment industry was still enforcing a strict rating policy on all of its films, Japanese audiences got to watch The Sword of Doom, a graphic, tough, and compelling film about the life of an evil samurai. A direct stylistic ancestor of the Lone Wolf and Cub films, it has aged remarkably well and still offers plenty of visceral thrills in addition to questions of humanity it puts forth. Now, 40 years after its release, we get the chance to see it on DVD, looking better than it ever has thanks to a great restoration from Criterion.
Facts of the Case
Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Dakodai, Ran), a young samurai in the last days of the Shogunate, is not known for generosity or benevolence. He has a particularly cruel fighting style, which seems inert but allows him to quickly find the weaknesses of his opponents. The cruelty of his fighting is matched by his coldness in other areas of his life, and he exerts his force effectively and often. When he kills a man in a local fencing match, he is driven from his home and takes refuge with the man's wife, working for a political group that appreciates his "silent form." His past and his violent nature begin to catch up to him, pressing him into a series of violent confrontations.
Most writings I have encountered about The Sword of Doom center on the impressive action that fills it. Though The Sword of Doom is one of the great action films of history, so much happens in the film that it seems unfair to dismiss it as simply an action movie. In order to do the film critical justice, I'll need to discuss its enigmatic ending, which I will try to keep as hidden as possible. Ideally, you should watch the film before reading the rest of this review.
There are two competing philosophies at the center of The Sword of Doom. One is voiced by Ryunosuke's father, who feels that his son's cruelty and evil were born out of his fighting style. He has an evil sword, and his father curses that Ryunosuke was ever allowed to pick up a sword in the first place. The other philosophy is held by sword master Toranosuke Shimada (Toshiro Mifune, The Seven Samurai), who claims that "The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword. Evil mind, evil sword." Regardless of which of these men speak the truth, Ryunosuke does have an evil sword. If his father is right, and that evil comes from the sword which has gradually taken over Ryunosuke's life, then the film can be understood as a tragedy. He is a man possessed, and when he fights a group of enemies at the end, he has completely lost his own will to the sword that he holds (I'm calling this the Lord of the Rings interpretation). However, if Shimada is right, then the evil in Ryunosuke's sword is simply an extension of himself. The bloodbath at the end can then be understood as madness that comes from devoting his life to evil actions.
In truth, both of these interpretations are too simple. Note that this was to be the first of three films, so the ending is left open deliberately. The question would have been answered definitively in further volumes. The other two films were never made, so we must sort through the pieces to find a conclusion we can live with. The ending suggests that the outcome does not matter. Ending the film this way doesn't allow the audience to look past the violence to see an answer or ultimate end. Violence is all there will ever be for Ryunosuke; whether he wins or dies it will happen with the evil sword in his hand. Perhaps he should be viewed as a representative of the age that he lives in: although he keeps an ordered and still exterior, he is corrupt to the core and prepared to burst into violence at any moment.
There is something troubling about his silent form, though. Because he goes completely inert, then reacts to the attacks of his opponents, his fighting style seems purely defensive. He understands that the moment of attack is moment of greatest vulnerability, which somehow makes his evil seem less complete. Virtually every time he kills, it is to defend himself from attack. The old man that he kills at the beginning has just prayed to die for the sake of his granddaughter. In his duel at the beginning, Bunnojo uses an illegal move to attempt to kill him. Ryunosuke is hard, cold, and cruel, but he acts within the bounds of the system of the time.
This window into the political world at the end of the Shogunate era is another fascinating aspect of The Sword of Doom, one that elevates it above a straight action film. Although a few characters exemplify the ideals of the samurai culture, most characters in this film are mad with power and have completely lost the notions of honor and responsibility that were meant to be at the core of that system. This perspective makes the film feel contemporary, especially when it comes to female characters. Both Hama and Omatsu are well-developed, strong characters, and we get to see how women were treated in the Shogunate era without the characters being victimized like in so many other samurai films.
The performances also make The Sword of Doom feel recent, especially a sophisticated performance from Tatsuya Dakodai. He spends much of the film in silence, but his eyes tell us much about his character and thoughts. His performance leaves many questions, yet he never seems aloof. The supporting cast is excellent, particularly the dependable Toshiro Mifune. The leads are as capable with their lines as they are with their swords, so it would have been a classic film even without the great action sequences.
The action scenes are great, though, and shot well. I don't know much about bushido, but this seems more believable than most samurai movies I have seen. Ryunosuke's style is impressive. He makes the fights look completely effortless, as though the sword moves on its own. Shimada's fight in the snow is equally compelling, yet displays a completely different style. These sword masters' opponents tend to run foolishly into their own deaths, but they don't seem like complete amateurs.
These sequences are made even more impressive by the artistry of the filming. Director Kihachi Okamoto has carefully crafted every moment of this film, and the results are breathtaking. The pacing is perfect, with each still moment building slowly up to explosions of vicious violence. Films with this much violence can numb the audience or seem senseless, but The Sword of Doom never falls into that trap. The cinematography is stellar, using the full 2.35:1 frame to great effect. The sound design is just as good, using music sparingly to punctuate important moments.
Fortunately, the transfer from Criterion does justice to Okamoto's work. The stunning video transfer reveals almost no dirt or flaws on the print. The black level isn't quite black, but the contrast is good and there is a surprising level of detail in the shadows. There are no visible compression artifacts, even in some challenging scenes with rain and snow. If every film from 40 years ago looked this good, film buffs would be very happy. The sound is also amazing, especially for a mono track. It's unusually beefy, with rich lows and clear highs. It never sounds tinny, and there is no hiss. Criterion isn't the only studio that does proper restorations of classic films, but this reminds us why Criterion is so respected among DVD aficionados.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The bad news? There aren't any extras on the disc. Although there is an informative essay in the booklet by Geoffrey O'Brien which clarifies Ryunosuke Tsukue's history, it would have been nice to see additional features.
Grab your Katanas and hop on board! The Sword of Doom is a remarkable action film and a lot more, and it deserves a place in every Asian film fan's collection. If cool swordplay, ambiguous and compelling stories, or fascinating peeks into history are your thing, this is a samurai film that you don't want to miss. Though the disc is bare, Criterion put a lot of effort into the restoration and is selling it at a low price point. Go buy it now.
Ryunosuke Tsukue is very, very guilty, but The Sword of Doom isn't.
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