The Sword of Doom
by Ben Beard
This DVD is available for purchase at HKFlix.com.
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This crisp, beautiful samurai film follows an unscrupulous young swordsman who operates as both victim and catalyst to a complicated series of revenge schemes.
During the mid-1800s, Japanese society slipped into a chaotic time, with the Shogunate falling into danger from democratic reformers, Secular modernists, power hungry warlords, and licentious gangsters. Amidst this rampant corruption enters Ryunosuke, a strange ambiguous anti-hero ruled by impulsive passions and a bizarre sense of honor. Dedicated to an unorthodox and therefore deadly school of sword fighting, Ryunosuke proves to be an opponent without peer. But his devotion to such a school reveals a deep abiding sickness inside, a perverse commitment to death that Ryunosuke doesn’t himself quite understand. He exists as a twisted simulacra of Nietzche’s uberman, living by his own code outside of the admittedly lax morality of his day, wreaking havoc in Japan’s forests and cities.
After committing a senseless murder of an old man, Ryunosuke learns from his father that he should gracefully lose an exhibition duel to Utsuki, who has staked his entire family’s estate on the match. Ryunosuke earns more reason to throw the match when Utsuki’s wife gives herself to him in exchange for his forfeiture. But after bedding her, Ryunosuke kills Utsuki anyway and then flees as Utsuki’s family vows revenge.
And all this in the first thirty minutes.
This remarkable film continues with Ryunosuke falling into petty scheming from a warlord intent on advancing his own career. The different storylines like in a Charles Dickens novel intertwine and merge as the film continues. Immersed in the details of Japanese society crumbling from its own decadence, the film offers both an intriguing story and a view of a complex waning of a warrior culture in decline.
And it all revolves around Ryunosuke, the problematic, disgraced genius who lives by an internal, unseen paradigm. There’s something magnificently wasted about him, like Eddie Kelson in The Hustler or Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Or like Billy the Kid in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, as he seems as much a victim of being on the wrong side of history as a villain. Here is the story of a great man wallowing in degradation due to his creeping obsolescence. In another era, Ryunosuke, rogue, drunkard, and monstrously self-absorbed, would be a hero or even a legend. But as modernism slowly ticks by, he’s nothing more than a killer.
The story circles through dozens of stories from revenge schemes to palace intrigues, it’s clear that the film was designed to be part of a trilogy detailing Japan’s violent past and uncertain future. The abrupt ending—with a body count unparalleled save for maybe Kill Bill, which this film clearly influenced—still somehow works, even though the uncertainty over the resolution to all the different stories is frustrating. And there is an impressive array of body mutilation, several severed limbs, endless chop sockey following every parry and thrust. But through the violence a hard-worn morality emerges; the death toll enforces the ridiculous machismo and single-minded self-destruction that eroded Japan’s finest people.
But the highlight of the film—even better than the great performances from Tatsuya Nakadai and Toshiro Mifune—is the absolutely stunning black and white deep focus cinematography. Startling and stark, the blessed visuals capture raindrops, snowfall, and the decline of the Japanese warrior class, all with unequaled aplomb and verve in incredibly crisp celluloid. Only the top U.S. films of the fifties and sixties come close to matching the highly stylized harsh beauty and power. Gregg Toland would be proud.
Sword of Doom follows a treacherous path, challenging and at times almost inaccessible. With a despicable anti hero playing the lead, and its scrutinizing attention on the effects of moral corruption on an individual living in an age rotten to the core, it’s part character study, part history lesson, and part operatic tragedy. It is a harsh, unforgiving film, much like the great westerns of Anthony Mann, Sergio Leone, or Clint Eastwood, a piercing psychological study of bad times and the bad men who live in them.
There’s much to focus on in this complex revenge tale, but ultimately it’s a great story, with great actors, great visuals, and a complicated message, all tied to the sweep of history through focusing on the individual. Only Akira Kurosawa—Japan’s late great Samurai poet—can claim as much.
Ben Beard is a film and music critic living in Chicago.
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