Criterion: The Sword of Doom (***) doesn’t land flush

The Sword of Doom – 1966

Director Kihachi Okamoto
Screenplay Shinobu Hashimoto based on the book Dai-bosatsu tōge by Kaizan Nakazato
Story by Tatsuya Nakadai, Yūzō Kayama, Michiyo Aratama, Toshiro Mifune, Yoko Naito

There is something innately fearsome about the blank stare of Tatsuya Nakadai’s Ryunoske, the titular subject of Okamato’s The Sword of Doom. Whether he is traveling through the mountain passes killing the old and infirm randomly, with very few words, or even sitting within the house of his child and the child’s mother, staring into the distance, Nakadai is effective as a man with no moral compass and a desire to be the best ronin in the late 1800’s Japan.

The people surrounding him are unaware of the depth of his soullessness. Most know he is dangerous, but at the beginning of the story, no one knows that he’ll kill randomly without a second thought.

Before a fencing competition, Hyoma (Kayama) the wife of his opponent comes to beg him for compassion. Her husband is no match for Ryunosuke, and she wants everyone to come out of the fight saving face and their lives. Ryunosuke takes advantage of her wantonly, leaving their liaison out in the open for her husband’s shame. Just before the match he divorces her. Then he attempts to kill the man who compromised her virtue. This ends in the death of Hyoma’s love, life and dreams.

This dishonorable act also sends Ryunosuke running from their hometown, killing many of the friends of his opponents and collecting Hyoma along the way.

Two years later, he is living as a paid assassin, while supporting Hyoma and their young child. No one is happy. Ryunosuke is unconcerned.

The man saunters through the town like a ghost, ending up at the dojo of Omatsu (Naito), the brother of the man he cut down two years prior. Under an assumed name, he asks for a fencing match and easily shows his style is no match for the brother. Shimada (Mifune), the leader of the dojo cuts the competition short. Ryunosuke and Shimada, more than any, know the score.

Mifune is perfectly cast as a seasoned and respectable master swordsman. He dominates every scene that he is in, much like his friend Shimura does in Seven Samurai. It’s all building up to something; that can only be redeemed with blood and violence.

There are some clever subplots, including the granddaughter (Aratama) of one of the victims of Ryunosuke. She is adopted after her grandfather is killed. She eventually meets Omatsu. It appears that they will be warm to one another.

There are several complications within these plots. There are subplots that actually hold some intense interest. The middle act is the strongest of the film, right up to the point where Ryunosuke confronts Shimada (below) with a large group of his fellow assassins. This is the finest and most haunting episode in the film.

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Unfortunately, the momentum of the storylines is completely halted in the third act. Several facets of the story are derailed and it all ends in a mess. It’s a shame, because many of the actors, including all previously mentioned and more show they are fully invested in the events at hand. The battle feels like a descent into madness, and I am sure that is the point. Problem is, it leaves several storylines loose in the wind.

It’s unclear what happened to lead to this end. The story comes from a serial novel, so it feels like there has to be story before and after the events of the film. Okamoto has real skill building tense scenes, with some excellent camerawork by Hiroshi Murai.

It is all for naught when the story comes to such a haggard and violent end. It leaves the viewer pining for what could have been and mourning what never will come.

(*** out of *****)

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