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The Sword of Doom

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Directed by Kihachi Okamoto
Written by Shinobu Hashimoto
Based on the novel by Kaizan Nakazato

The Sword of Doom is a captivating film set during the final days of Shogunate rule. The main character is Ryunosuke, a fighter of magnificent skill who lives his own twisted version of the samurai code. When he first appears in the film, he takes on the role of an avenging angel. An old man prays to Buddha in hopes that his life will mercifully end soon, so he is no longer a burden to his granddaughter. Ryunosuke grants the old man’s request, but the viewer soon learns that Ryunosuke might not have acted out of compassion. His father tells Ryunosuke that there is a cruelty in his fighting style and that “cruelty doesn’t stop with your sword. It seems to have seeped into your mind and body.” I was intrigued by the idea of a samurai character that I hadn’t seen before.

A match has been scheduled between Ryunosuke and Bunnojo of the Kogen fighting school. Ryunosuke’s father requests that he lose the match because it is so important to Bunnojo. Ryunosuke is later visited by Hama, who claims to be Bunnojo’s sister, and she too requests that Ryunosuke lose the match. He tells her “a swordsman prizes his skill like a woman prizes her chastity,” and asks her if she would surrender it. She understands and does, but Bunnojo soon finds out. Since she has brought shame and disgrace to the family, Bunnojo seeks revenge. During the match, a draw is declared, yet those aren’t the final results.

The story jumps ahead two years. Ryunosuke has become a drunk and is living with Hama and a young child. They blame each other for the state they find themselves in, neither accepting the role they played. Ryunosuke works for little money under an alias as an assassin for a group of samurais. The group is splintering into different factions who all want control and scheme to get it.

Ryunosuke enters the school of the great fighting teacher Shimada, played by Toshiro Mifune, who brilliantly captures the subtleties of the role. Ryunosuke requests a match with Shimada, who offers up his assistant Hyoma instead. Ryunosuke handles him easily and now wants to challenge Shimada who refuses. Ryunosuke leaves, yet all their lives will continue to be intertwined.

The film abruptly ends on a freeze frame in the middle of a fight. The liner notes reveal that this film was scheduled to be one in a series, which explains the abruptness in practical terms; however, even though there are loose ends, the film’s story does conclude. The outcome of the climactic fight is known, as is Ryunosuke’s fate. The other storylines while interesting are inconsequential.

There film is filled with great fight sequences. When a large group of mercenaries mistakenly attacks Shimada, it’s wonderful seeing Mifune cut loose amidst the falling snow. He then stays true to his character and scolds the men’s leader for making him kill so may good swordsman against his will. Also, during a couple of Ryunosuke’s fights, the tension is heightened by the lack of sound as the combatants slowly size each other up.

The black and white cinematography looks fantastic and it not solely because of the high-definition digital transfer or the 2.35:1 ratio, although they help. Okamoto along with cinematographer Hiroshi Murai make superb choices in the framing of the shots and the use of lighting, especially in the sequence where Ryunosuke is visited by the ghosts of the past. I have added The Sword of Doom to my arsenal when having arguments with people who tell me they only like films in color or full screen.

There are no supplemental materials, unusual for Criterion, but there is an informative essay in the liner notes that discusses the film and its source material.

About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
  • http://draven99.blogspot.com Chris Beaumont

    Nice, I’ve been wanting to check this out, but new very little about it. ALthough it really isn’t all that unusual for Criterion not to have extras, granted they have some great sets, but it is like 50/50 whether there will be supplementals. Thanks, I’ll have to check this out.

  • http://www.pointsofdeparture.blogspot.com Cletus Nelson

    Sword of Doom often seems unstructured and scattered but I’ve read on-line that the character of Ryunosuke was intended to convey the saga of an “avenging angel” rooted in Japanese mythic tradition.

    Go back through the movie and watch it again—are the people he kills merely the victims of his violence or are their deaths justifiable as part of some reshuffling of the cosmic order?

    Glad to hear it’s now on DVD!

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Cletus,

    You and the online writers who talk about Ryunosuke being an angel are the ones who need to watch the film again because I don’t see any evidence that leads to that conclusion.

    While of some of the killings may have been justifiable, why do we see both his father and Shimada talk about how evil Ryunosuke, yet no counter-arguement is made on his behalf?

    If Ryunosuke is righteous, why would he be haunted by the ghosts of those he killed? I have many other questions, but don’t want to ruin the plot for others.

    It is quite possible that the online writers you mention are referring to the intention of Ryunosuke’s character in the novel and not the film. Adaptations are not always accurate to their source material.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Chris,

    I have been reviewing Criterion discs for the past six months. I don’t dispute the accuracy of your percentages being correct at one point in time, but since I have been working with them, they have really been doing a much better job of finding supplemntal material.

    Go to their website and check out what’s been released this year and what they have scheduled, and you’ll discover that only 2 out of 24 don’t have any extras. Plus, they are going back to restore and remaster some films like “M” and “Jules and Jim,” adding newly found and created supplements.

    http://www.criterionco.com/asp/