#515: The Sword of Doom
Initial release: February 25, 1966
Director: Kihachi Okamoto
Samurai film sits in a weird historical position in popular culture. Despite being a fundamentally Japanese form of art, it enjoyed immense popularity in the United States. But it’s also a very mid-century phenomenon; while samurai movies (and anime) are still being made, the genre’s heyday was absolutely in the 1950s and 1960s, and it’s in this respect that a lot of modern samurai stories, particularly those written by Westerners, draw heavily from the likes of Akira Kurosawa and his contemporaries. (Witness, for example, Ghosts of Tsushima’s “Kurosawa mode,” which thrusts the otherwise color and in-English game into black and white with Japanese voice acting.)
Perhaps that’s actually down to Kurosawa being the most famous samurai film director in the West, but he wasn’t the only one. Kihachi Okamoto was a contemporary of his, and where Kurosawa’s films blended traditional heroics with a sort of wry cynicism, Okamoto tended towards a bleaker, far more violent outlook.
Enter Ryunosuke Tsukue, the monstrous swordsman of The Sword of Doom, known in Japan as Dai-bosatsu Tōge (“Great Bodhisattva Pass”) and sometimes referred to as Killer Samurai after its Italian release. Ryunosuke makes his first appearance by murdering an elderly Buddhist pilgrim. Following that, he goes back to the fencing school from which he had been expelled, but was nonetheless due to participate in a match. After being asked by his opponent’s wife to throw the (non-lethal) match to preserve the man’s reputation and future, Ryunosuke only agrees after sexually assaulting her, but her husband finds out about it and attacks Ryunosuke with intent to kill, only for Ryunosuke to kill him in one stroke of his wooden sword. Fast-forward a couple years and Ryunosuke is operating with the Shinsengumi, a pro-Shogunate gang of samurai that assassinates supporters of the Emperor. His fellows are creeped out by him but they can’t deny his skill as a swordsman. One night, an assassination attempt fails miserably when they discover their target isn’t there, and in his place is a master swordsman (played by none other than Toshiro Mifune) who slaughters the entire group, leaving Ryunosuke alive as unworthy of a proper fight. Between that and his girlfriend (the same woman who tried to talk him into taking a dive two years earlier, left rudderless after her husband divorced her and then died) trying to kill him, the already unhinged Ryunosuke nears the deep end as the film approaches its climactic scene: a full-fledged freakout, Ryunosuke slashing at the ghosts of those he murdered, before fighting all of his fellow Shinsengumi in a seven-minute, no-holds-barred rampage in which he slaughters upwards of 30 people as the building burns down around them, the film ending on a freeze frame.
Ryunosuke is portrayed expertly by Tatsuya Nakadai, who is no stranger to playing unhinged weirdos — see his role as the gun-toting Unosuke in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo or the stuffy Hanbei Muroto in Sanjuro — but really gets a chance to show off his acting chops as Ryunosuke in a way that he hadn’t had since playing the tortured soldier Kaji in Masaki Kobayashi’s grim war epic The Human Condition. Punctuating a thousand-yard stare with occasional insane giggles, and speaking in a deep monotone, he cuts a threatening figure, never one to run but preferring instead to move slowly towards his opponent and strike hard, like some kind of samurai Michael Myers. It’s this preternatural slowness that makes his final meltdown all the more shocking.
Opposite him is Mifune as Toranosuke Shimada, a master swordsman himself (who may be based on a real person) who has been serving as a tutor of sorts to the brother of the man Ryunosuke killed at the match. While he has a comparatively smaller role, having to share space not just with Ryunosoke, but also with several other characters who form their own little side drama centering around tournaments and courtesan culture, he plays an outsize role in driving Ryunosuke to his final meltdown, as the latter realizes that he may not be untouchable after all.
It’s Shimada’s words to Ryunosuke that state the ultimate message of the film: “The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword. Evil mind, evil sword.” But the sword is all Ryunosuke knows, in the violent world of Tokugawa-era Japan. We get nothing of his past, or his future. The film ends abruptly, multiple loose ends left untethered; there was a sequel intended, but it never happened. He participates in assassinations when it’s clear he’s no longer welcome at tournaments — his only goal is to kill people. And is Shimada’s position really the morally superior one? Is he not also a product of this world?
Whatever the case, The Sword of Doom is an impeccably crafted work, a grim, noirish take on samurai that speaks to the violence inherent in the genre, and the kind of people who inhabit it. Okamoto is a master of building suspense to nearly unbearable levels only to release it in a fury of carnage that only seems to get bloodier with each successive catharsis. His camera work is nothing short of genius, giving us incredible scenes like Ryunosuke standing dumbfounded in the snow, his dead compatriots everywhere as the camera slowly zooms out; or how about the voyeuristic feel of watching Ryunosuke and a fellow conspirator meeting in a private room obscured by screens, the camera getting closer, as if sneaking up for a better look? In a lot of ways, it reminds me of a less intense version of Shura, less claustrophobic and just a few notches less batshit, but no less bleak and bewildering.
While it’s perhaps not as famous as Kurosawa’s work, The Sword of Doom and its sociopathic swordsman are a meaningful counterpoint to Kurosawa and Mifune’s Ronin with No Name — a cynical, but heroic fighter for justice, tired of killing but does what he must, versus an amoral murderer who embodies the logical endpoint for a culture that thrives on violence. It’s worth thinking about the differences between the two, and what their representations of samurai mean.