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.