Director: Kihachi Okamoto
Screenplay: Shinobu Hashimoto
Based on a Novel by: Kaizan Nakazato
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Michiyo Aratama, Yûzô Kayama, Yôko Naitô, Toshirô Mifune
Running Time: 120 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
Nobody does genre movies quite like they do in Asia. The continent is often known for pushing the boundaries of cinema and producing some of the most extreme films, but Japan and South Korea in particular also make some of the classiest genre movies. Whereas much of American horror and action is rather artless, Japanese and South Korean cinema has long prided itself in giving potentially B-movie material a high-class, arthouse or A-picture polish. Japan had their own particular subgenre that provided a lot of its most famous filmmakers their finest hours, the samurai movie. For example, many of Akira Kurosawa's most beloved films fall within this category, such as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. In Japan, Kurosawa is not quite as well loved though (he's often criticised for being too influenced by Western cinema) and there are several other directors more famous for making samurai films. One director who made several classic titles within the genre (on top of a wide range of films), but is less of a household name overseas, is Kihachi Okamoto. One of his most well-known samurai films in the West, The Sword of Doom, is being re-released on Blu-Ray in the UK by the Criterion Collection. It's a film I've seen a couple of times before and it gets better with each watch, so I couldn't resist giving it another whirl, particularly in this beautifully restored HD upgrade.
There's quite a lot going on in The Sword of Doom, but I'll do my best to sum up the plot. Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a psychopathic samurai who is asked to purposefully lose a fencing match to Bunnojo Utsuki (Ichirô Nakatani) by his father and Bunnojo's wife Hama (Michiyo Aratama). The latter agrees to give up her virtue to talk Ryunosuke into throwing the match, but Bunnojo finds out, so the match becomes a duel to the death. The fight is called a tie before a blow is made, as the referee can see this. Straight after the call is made however, Bunnojo lunges at Ryunosuke, who swiftly kills the enraged husband. Ryunosuke is cast out from the town due to this and we cut to an unspecified time in the future.
Now Ryunosuke is married to Hama, although she seems very bitter about the situation and hates her new husband. Ryunosuke believes it's time they try to go back home, but he learns that Bunnojo's brother Hyoma (Yûzô Kayama) is seeking vengeance, so wants to tie up this loose end first. Hyoma meanwhile, is training with master fencer Shimada (Toshirô Mifune) at the request of Ryunosuke's father, who wants his son dead after he disgraced the family. In amongst all of this, the young and beautiful Omatsu becomes intwined in this tale of vengeance, after her grandfather was killed by Ryunosuke and she falls in love with Hyoma.
It's quite a dense story or at least can be difficult to follow, as Okamoto and his screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto like to keep a lot of the plot details rather murky. This might be down to the fact that they wanted to create a nightmarish atmosphere and focus on Ryunosuke's troubled mind, or it might be because the film was based on what was, at one time, the longest novel in Japan. Released originally in 41 volumes, it was an epic historical novel focusing on the Edo period in Japanese history. Due to the length of the source material, Okamoto originally envisaged Sword of Doom as the first part of a trilogy of films. It didn't make enough money in Japan when it was released though, so the sequels were never made. Due to this, a couple of major plot points aren't tied up in the film, but this works due to the aforementioned muddy approach to the storytelling.
This unusual style can seem off-putting at first, but as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, this is a film that improves on repeated viewings. For one, it allows you to fully grasp what's happening and who's who, but also it means you can focus on the other elements of the film that make it the masterpiece it is.
As is often the case with Japanese films of the era, the film is beautifully crafted, with some bold and carefully framed mis-en-scene on display. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, with some atmospheric lighting making great use of mist, dust and snow in key scenes. There's some elegant movement on show too and some wilder camerawork in the film's finale.
Speaking of the finale, Sword of Doom truly has one of the most astonishing endings in all of cinema. The scene is a culmination of Ryunosuke's inner demons getting the better of him and he explodes in a wild rage, launching a terrifying, surreal attack on the shadows around him and the sounds he hears in his head. This eventually turns into real violence when he is attacked by waves of physical enemies and the action becomes increasingly more bloody and aggressive. It's a bold, shocking and stunningly well constructed climax to a film that already has its share of impressive sequences.
It's a stunning film in general. It's bleak as hell, featuring one of cinema's coldest villains as our chief protagonist (perfectly portrayed by Nakadai), but is beautifully made with every element crafted to perfection. It's a dark, nightmarish masterpiece.
The Sword of Doom is out on Blu-Ray in the UK on 4th December, released by The Criterion Collection. The transfer looks very good, although some of the highlights are on the verge of burning out from time to time. Audio is solid throughout.
Special features are thin on the ground, which is a shame, although you do get an audio commentary featuring film historian Stephen Prince. This doesn't quite span the entire film, as he takes a few breaks here and there, but he provides a decent analysis.