Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom is set in Japan in the early 1860s, as the Edo period is about to give way to the Meiji era, which is to say that the feudal Japanese age is about to undergo a wave of modernization that will render it theoretically more democratic. This notion, of life swept away, fuels a film that angrily paints Edo Japan as a world marked by a figurehead Kyoto emperor who’s ignorant of and powerless to the shoguns who govern with the use of shadowy quasi-police organizations made up of wandering, unemployed samurai (a.k.a. ronin). One such samurai, Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai), is a brilliant, potentially un-killable swordsman who’s first seen murdering an elderly man more or less for the sake of it, though it’s pivotal to the film’s moral fabric that we see the man, perhaps disingenuously, begging for death so as to grant his granddaughter reprieve from his blossoming infirmities.
In a conventional samurai movie, Ryunosuke would be a bad guy, and he would eventually be challenged and thwarted by one or more of the many comparatively righteous people he wrongs over the course of the narrative. But it gradually becomes clear that this samurai is a barometer of the atrocity happening around him. The old man literally begs for his murder, to the sky, and the killings that kick off the film’s stubbornly complicated plot result from the victims provoking Ryunosuke. Even the killer’s fighting style is recessive: dependent on waiting the opponent out until they rashly charge forward to their demise. (Geoffrey O’Brien writes, in the essay included with this disc, that the film’s source material, the novel The Great Bodhisattva Pass, is informed by a Buddhist notion of the swordsman as nothing but the working out of karmic law.)
Recession is difficult to dramatize, and Tsukue is remarkable. He must withhold all conventional empathetic signposts without making an editorialized show of the humanity he’s dialing back. Yet, there’s pain in those dark eyes—pain tinging the outward contempt and resentment. Ryunosuke is a fascinating object, a ghost who eventually comes to be haunted by his own ghosts. And there’s also fear in those eyes, particularly in the extraordinary fight scene in which a benevolent teacher, Shimada (Toshirô Mifune), proceeds to slaughter most of Ryunosuke’s associates while pontificating the sword as a symbol of the clarity of the soul.
The world of The Sword of Doom is terrifying and inexplicable—its barely decipherable political plot obscured by noir shadows and submerged urges. There’s ultimately only the violence, which exists as flitting self-contained movements that destroy all else yet serve as instances of disgusting self-governed simplicity. The fight scene with Shimada in a small village during a snowfall is one of the more amazing action scenes committed to film, contrasting as it does the inkiness of night with the white of the snow with the vertical planes of the village landscape, all of which highlight the freeing pride of the precision of the slashing swords and the occasional accompanying jolt of a splash of blood or a tumbling body part.
The final fight between Ryunosuke and seemingly every ronin imaginable, some of which only exist in his addled mind, is even more powerful, building on the exactitude of the Shimada sequence and topping it for sheer, exhaustive length and specificity of detail, such as the multi-planed slashing of screen walls—an act that scans, weirdly, as more invasive than the murders. An initially exhilarating battle becomes a testament to a tormented psyche that’s understood, most disturbingly, to yearn for someone to be able to kill its body, so as to unleash it from a Sisyphean cycle of carnage. Yet that ending does not come. The film doesn’t so much end as stop, signaling resigned exhaustion. If Ryunosuke is consigned to hell, the audience, at least, may go free, though they may wonder what the hell they’ve just seen.
The night sequences boast lustrously inky blacks and pristine whites, both of which actively nurture the surreal quality of scenes that sometimes suggest the heightened postmodern noir look of Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City 40 years before that was a relevant comparison. Day sequences are somewhat less consistent: Grain is occasionally intrusive because of an unattractive glare in the whites that sometimes appears to block facial textures. Not a deal breaker, but this image is surprisingly inconsistent for a Criterion disc. The monaural mix is more characteristic of the company, offering a rich and subtle mixture of sonic details both small and thunderous.
Geoffrey O’Brien’s essay provides useful, beautifully written context that will be of value to people who’re unaware of the political history that obliquely informs The Sword of Doom. Better yet is Stephen Prince’s new audio commentary, recorded last year, which outlines the film’s historical backdrop, while also providing astute shot-by-shot descriptions of the techniques that director Kihachi Okamoto employs to establish character dynamics, sexual tension, subtext, and so on. Prince is particularly adept at discussing the battle scenes, as well as the startling violation that occurs in a sequence set at a rice mill that uses trigger hammers symbolically in a fashion perhaps coincidentally reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s similarly themed westerns. There’s a lot to digest here. The theatrical trailer rounds out this slim but essential supplements package.
This great existential samurai political thriller receives a wonderful new audio commentary that nearly serves to distract from the disappointment of the image transfer, which is sporadically gorgeous, but inconsistent.