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‘Sword of Doom’ is an aggressively dour and violent samurai excursion

‘Sword of Doom’ is an aggressively dour and violent samurai excursion


Sword of Doom

Written by Shinobu Hashimoto

Directed by Kihachi Okamoto

Japan, 1966

Teenager Omatsu (Yoko Naito) and her grandfather walk atop a hill in the Japanese countryside on a beautiful day. While Omatsu leaves for a few moments to fetch water, her grandfather is discovered and ruthlessly struck down by a renegade samurai named Ryunosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai). The latter’s actions are but a sampling of his psychotic streak which leaves his underserving victims in the dust. Ryunosuke is a madman, but one gifted with glorious samurai skills, thus making him a highly coveted tool despite his staunchly anti-social personality. His actions on the hilltop thrust into motion a series of events that will see Ryunosuke’s sanity put to the test. He will go on to kill the brother of a young but highly skilled swordsman named Hyoma Utsuki (Yuzo Kayama), the latter whom will fall in love with the beautiful Omatsu. Hyoma’a own sensei Toranosuke Shimida (Toshiro Mifune) will have an unexpected impact on Ryunosuke, as will a branch of the Shinsengumi, officers ordained with the mission to protect the shogunate.

There is an unmistakable uneasiness about Sword of Doom, director Kihachi Okamoto’s 1966 oft praised if strangely construed chambara action picture. With each passing frame its title rings truer and truer. An impending yet ill-defined doom lurks over all proceedings like an unshakable dark cloud, slowly but inexorably propelling nearly all of the characters onto a dark path, towards fates that would be best reserved for far more deserving souls. Sword of Doom’s beating black heart is the anti-hero Ryunosuke’s very existence, for all he does is out of some form of malice. The results of his actions vary, with some dire consequences being swift and fatal, others unfolding over much longer periods of time and increasingly cruel as time ticks away, like a knife slowly twisted in a person’s innards.

There is much to be said about the sheer fact that the film opts to make the antagonist, rather than any of the many protagonists, front and center for the viewer to follow around on a trail of unforgivable mischief. Individuals the likes of Hyoma, Omatsu and Toranosuke are employed in such ways that remind the audience of the kinder, more levelheaded people that inhabit this world. Despite their much welcomed presence, Tatsuya Nakadai’s aura and his character’s insatiable desire to wreak havoc on others in a plethora of creative ways overtakes whatever glimmers of hope and light anybody attempts to instil into the film. Beyond just Nakadai’s disquietingly solemn performance, it is the way he goes about torturing others that truly hits home. Trotting around and killing just any random passerby would probably suffice to make him out to be a terrible human being, but Sword of Doom depicts him a perceptive devil, one fuel as much by his cunning as by his rage. He understands with pinpoint accuracy situations that can be turned on their heads in order to destabilize an individual’s life. One need look no further than Ryunosuke’s first sin, that being the murder Omatsu’s dear granddad. Make no mistake about it, the act itself is appalling, but then consider that he was listening to the old man from behind as he prayed that he lose his life in order to no longer be a burden on Omatsu’s shoulders. In an incredibly twisted sense, Ryunosuke might have felt he was doing a favour for the aging gentleman whilst temporarily quenching his maniacal inhibitions. The villain demonstrates Machiavellian qualities in his schemes, less so to gain status and power and more so to inflict emotional, psychological and physical on others.


Sword of Doom is directed by Kihachi Okamoto, the latter seemingly taking a cue out of the Yasojiru Ozu school of filming. Granted, the Japanese legend never directed anything resembling Sword of Doom content-wise, but Okamoto embeds the aesthetic with a smidgeon of the style employed by Ozu. Low angles shots as characters kneel down (often referred to as ‘tatami shots’ when discussing Ozu’s work) and a careful attention placed on having the characters conversing in a scene as the main focus of a shot as opposed to quick cutting between reaction shots. Whether intentional or not, this borrowing serves a purpose, that being for the most dialogue scenes to feel as though they are the calm before a coming storm or the aftermath of a recent Ryusonuke.

Of course, cinematography, editing and acting all get more dynamic whenever challengers face off against one another. Even by early twenty-first century standards of action movies, Sword of Doom’s body count is spectacularly high. Granted, most of the deaths occur in three scenes as opposed to being splattered across entire running length. There is wonderful emphasis put on the samurai combat style as well, making each confrontation lighting quick, the loser typically falling to their death after one critical blow dealt by Ryusonuke or Toranosuke. The snow covered scene in which the sensei takes down more than a dozen Shinsengumi assassins is beautiful for its composition, courtesy of Hiroshi Murai’s crips cinematography, as well as the ruthless efficiency with which Toranosuke makes it known to Ryunosuke that he is not to taken lightly either. In fact, the former is so commanding in his swordsmanship that the antagonist refrains from counter-attacking once his entire posse is lying in its own blood in mere minutes. Another sumptuous scene involves the villain and Hyoma’s aforementioned brother who engage in a contest for a local tournament between various regional schools. Rather than capture the moment with the same gusto as the other major action set pieces, Okamoto slows down the pace a crawl, paying extremely close attention to the movement of feet, eyes and their posture, which proves revelatory in the case of Ryunosuke, whose seemingly limp combat stance becomes a hotly debated point amongst his enemies throughout the film.


No discussion of Okamoto’s film would be complete without mention of its bizarre climax, one that is left unresolved. The picture is in fact inspired by one of the longest written tales in Japanese history and was intended to be the first chapter in a trilogy. While several other filmmakers have in fact told somewhat complete cinematic interpretations of the story, Okamoto and the crew never got around to completing their series. The freeze frame of Ryunosuke hacking away with his blade towards the audience is a tantalizing tease of what might have been. Despite the disappointment felt by some that Nakadai and company left their business unfinished, the final scene itself is hallucinogenic in its bravura. Director, crew and Nakadai pull out all the stops to make to truly leave the audience hanging. As the nefarious Ryunosuke, sitting in a secluded chamber of a night club, prepares to kill Omatsu, whom he suspects to be a spy working against him and the Shinsengumi, real or possibly fictitious ghosts of the people he has killed haunt him. Minutes later an immeasurable number of assassins storm the room to assassinate him, producing a marathon of blood and yelps of pain as Ryunosuke, now completely out of his mind, barbarically strikes everyone down. The overall is terrifying in its ferocity and the not so subtle visual cues indicating that Ryunosuke is troubled by demons that overpower him.

There is no denying that a small taste of dissatisfaction is left in one’s mouth as Sword of Doom ends. Even if director Kihachi Okamoto had successfully completed the originally planned trio of motion pictures, there is something at least a bit annoying about a film ending on such a cliffhanger. Incidentally, this is a much discussed topic in the modern age of film criticism as well, what with several modern film series frequently having their individual entries split into separate movies (Hunger Games and The Hobbit being two well known examples that spring to mind). Even so, the film is superbly directed and acted and, by having the general plot viewed through the prism of the villain’s eyes, sets a tone that few other chambara films can match. It is a strange beast indeed, but one fully deserving of one’s time.

-Edgar Chaput