Sword Of Doom (The)
R1 - America - Criterion Collection
Review written by and copyright: Noor Razzak (23rd May 2005).
The Film

Before viewing this film I had never seen a film by Kihachi Okamoto before. Aside from the brief synopsis on the DVD case I didn抰 know anything about this film. It was about a rouge samurai, it was violent and gritty and it stars Toshir么 Mifune, these three aspects attracted me to this film in some way or another. But what I got was far more than just a straight swordplay flick, it also had a spiritual message threaded amongst the action. But before I get into the themes of this film let抯 take a brief look at its torrid history first.

The Sword of Doom started life as a newspaper serial in 1913 by author Kaizan Nakazato, the popular story continued for over 30 years, the death of Nakazato would see the work unfinished. From the serials came together the extremely lengthy novel Daibosatsu T么ge which proved a popular publication and has since been adapted into a stage play and five different film adaptations since 1935. Because of the book抯 length the story could simply not fit within the confines of a single film so it was broken up either into two parts or a trilogy. In the 1960抯 Kihachi Okamoto was set to re-adapt the classic novel for what would be the fifth film incarnation, this time as a swordplay trilogy, which unfortunately never materialized only the first chapter was completed. While it抯 a shame that the later chapters were never filmed what we have here is a classic samurai genre film nonetheless.

The Sword of Doom tells the story of Ryunosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) an evil-hearted samurai with an unusual fighting style that draws his opponents in. He fights without remorse, mercy or compassion. Ryunosuke has been matched to fight Bunnojo Utsuki (Ichir么 Nakaya) at his fencing school. Utsuki is no match for the highly skilled Ryunosuke so his wife Ohama (Michiyo Aratama) meets with Ryunosuke under the guise of being Utsuki抯 sister (to save face perhaps) and begs for him to let Utsuki win the fight and in return offers her chastity to him for doing so. Having taken her chastity, Utsuki learns of his wife抯 infidelity and divorces her. The match is no longer a friendly exhibition fight but is seen as a duel, during which Utsuki uses an illegal move to attack Ryunosuke who delivers a fatal blow to his opponents head.

Disputed by Utsuki抯 friends they confront Ryunosuke who slaughters them all and takes on Utsuki抯 widowed wife on as his own as she has nowhere else to go. Over time Ryunosuke changes his name and joins another school, meanwhile Utsuki抯 brother Hyoma (Yuzo Kayama) is given his blessing from Ryunosuke抯 old master to find him and kill him. Having pursued Ryunosuke to his new school Hyoma arranges a meeting with master Shimada (Toshir么 Mifune) and reveals to him his newest student抯 true identity, that he is in fact Ryunosuke an evil force that has to be destroyed. Shimada trains Hyoma in secret to prepare for his battle with Ryunosuke that will avenge the death of his brother.

I think that the incompletion of this film series has led to many different interpretations of the character and story presented. There are those familiar with the original source material (the book) and those that are not. I had not previously read the novel, nor did I know anything about this film抯 history before watching it so there was a great deal of research to undertake before committing a word to this review and the Geoffrey O払rien essay included in the liner notes was a good start but further digging on the internet really helped me gain a good grasp of the much beloved material.

There are two popular interpretations of this film, and most notably the character Ryunosuke. The first presumes that he is a truly evil monster driven by hate, the more his blade is stained with blood the deeper into madness he delves, Just by studying Tatsuya Nakadai憇 haunting portrayal of Ryunosuke will add credibility to this theory. Looking into those seemingly empty black eyes as he strikes down his victims gives us an insight into the character, he truly enjoys the kill. The other popular interpretation is that he is an angel providing relief for those that wish to die. If you look closely at all the victims of Ryunosuke抯 blade they all either asked for death or deserved it. The old man on the mountain prayed to Buddha for death and Ryunosuke delivered the blow. Utsuki抯 illegal move in their match was a deliberate attempt to kill Ryunosuke and his kill was a defensive one, Ohama tried to kill Ryunosuke in his sleep and she got what she deserved, and so on. So is he a monster or his he an angel? To be perfectly honest I don抰 think it抯 that simple to define, the film certainly doesn抰 have a clear cut explanation, perhaps additional insight would have been learned had the film trilogy been completed. I tried to approach this by looking at the film as a single stand alone story and not as a part of an incomplete trilogy and my conclusion is that it抯 really open-ended enough for the viewer to decide for themselves. One thing is for sure Ryunosuke descent into madness is a result of his lust for the kill, it seems clear that he cherishes the kill but his fighting style never allows himself to attack but to draw his opponent in, perhaps it was his own fighting discipline that drew him closer and closer into insanity?

The performances are nothing short of brilliant, while the entire cast here gives memorable performances it is Nakadai抯 unsettling turn as Ryunosuke that is the true star of this film, watching him onscreen is both a delight and terror to behold.

The black and white photography by Hiroshi Murai is both beautiful and haunting and combined with Masaru Sat么s score adds to the atmosphere Okamoto was trying to create and heightens the overall feel of the piece, one shot in particular that remains in my mind is the wide shot of Ryunosuke standing solitary amongst the bodies of Utsuki抯 friends he抯 just slaughtered. There is a kind of nightmarish elegance to the film that compliments Ryunosuke抯 turbulent state of mind.

Video

Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, this anamorphic transfer like many of Criterion抯 releases have been restored and remastered from original elements. Due to the black and white photography the film has a natural fine film grain throughout that has been preserved. The image looks very good, black details are spot on and white levels look natural. Shadow detail is near perfect, but I did spot some edge enhancement which although is slightly annoying I doubt will be picked out by Joe average DVD buyer. Overall I抎 say that this is a fine transfer and possibility the best this film has looked on any home video format.

Audio

The disc includes only a single audio track in the way of it抯 original Japanese 1.0 mono. Aside from the occasional sword battle this film is very dialogue heavy and I抦 happy to say that the sound is crystal clear. The score is transferred beautifully and is never overbearing any of the dialogue. While it lacks any real depth it抯 still a fantastic soundtrack considering the film抯 age.
Optional subtitles are available in English only.

Extras

Sadly the only extra included is an essay by film critic Geoffrey O払rien, the essay included here as a printed booklet is very informative and covers the film抯 history and it抯 importance as a Japanese swordplay classic. While the film抯 transfer and sound are impressive it would have been beneficial to have included at the very least an audio commentary with this release.

Overall

The Sword of Doom is a beautifully crafted tale of a vengeful samurai that eventually falls into madness, Okamoto has created a film with powerfully memorable performances and hauntingly beautiful photography, I highly recommend this film. The Criterion Collection has included a very good film and audio transfer but sadly lacks any extras aside from an essay.

The Film: A Video: A Audio: A Extras: F Overall: C

 


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