Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Modern DVD enthusiasts awash in the copious bloodletting of samurai and yakuza movies may
need to be reminded that back before video, the only access to most Japanese fare was in
art film theaters and neighborhood Japanese theaters in major cities. Like most Americans,
the only Japanese films I'd seen before college were Toho's giant monster movies, and
at UCLA there was only the occasional screening of a Kurosawa film. Thus when books
by Paul Schrader and Alain Silver appeared that charted the entire history and
genre-specific lore of samurai and yakuza cinema, they described a cinema that couldn't really
be seen. With European horror films we at least had the censored and dubbed American
versions to ponder.
But we did hear of a few. Right about the time my eyes were being opened by my first
visits to LA's Kokusai theater (part four of Sword of Vengeance being my advent into
a new world of razor dismemberment aesthetics), I heard people talking
about possible precursors. The title Sword of Doom frequently came up.
Criterion's Sword of Doom turns out to be the character study of a master
swordsman who is also a murdering maniac, hiding behind courtly manners but secretly
relishing every opportunity to express his core obsession.
Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai), a sword master 'separated' from
his school, is a functional psychopath who loves to kill. He murders a harmless pilgrim
for sport and then plays with Yuzo (Hyoma Utsuki), the wife of a tournament opponent.
She and several other men ask Tsukue to lose on purpose, as her husband has a future
to protect and Tsukue has nothing. Tsukue and the wife make a deal, but the tournament
goes wrong anyway. Later, working as a veritable outlaw, Tsukue takes on Yuzo and her
child but retains his fierce independence - and his love for killing, which grows
greater with every bloody ambush.
According to Geoffrey O'Brien's indispensible liner notes, Daibosatsu Toge was
a newspaper serial that continued for thirty years and forty-three volumes, and
charted the progress of a "demonic swordsman" embodying the way of karmic law.
Kihachi Okamoto's 1965 film version tells only a tiny fraction of the story of
Ryunosuke Tsukue. It picks up at a conventional starting point (a pointless
murder, a problematic tournament) but leaps ahead more than once between "incidents,"
leaving out a lot of detail in between. The effect is almost as if we were seeing
episodes 1, 4, 7 and 8 in a serial with dozens of adventures to follow; the
film's frenzied freeze-frame ending ignores a number of loose ends to concentrate
on Ryunosuke Tsukue's ecstatic heights of mayhem.
There is plenty of detail to follow. Tsukue does not honor his dirty bargain with
Yuzo - her honor for his throwing of the contest - but he maliciously turns the
blame back on her anyway. In tournament combat with supposedly non-deadly wooden
substitutes for swords, Yuzo's jealous husband Bunnojo Utsuki (Ichiro Nakaya)
launches an illegal move and receives a deadly blow to the head.
Okamoto's tournament fights are splendid. The key moves are so swift we barely see
them, convincing us that Ryunosuke Tsukue is a master who lives, eats and sleeps
his craft. We know he's a bad apple through the presence of Toshiro Mifune as
Toranosuke Shimada, a respected sensei of a certain sword style. We see Shimada
dice up a dozen of Tsukue's fellow shogunate pirates, yet even he knows that our
psycho protagonist has tricks yet unknown. In a nice lead-up to the ultimate
battle, a positive sword pupil (a minor character) follows Shimada's advice to
use the very same maneuver that Tsukue so easily defeated before.
Besides Yuzo, the fallen woman who eventually lives with Tsukue and nags him about
his lack of responsibility for his baby, there is Ohama
(Michiyo Aratama) a hopeful bride who has little choice but to become a lowly
prostitute-geisha for the opportunistic scum Ryunosuke Tsukue runs with. We wonder
how she is going to be rescued - perhaps Tsukue will repent? Not likely, since it
was Ohama's grandfather that he slayed just to keep his sword arm in practice.
There's also Omatsu (Yoko Naito), a prostitute who tries to be fair with Ohama.
Just when we think that these characters (or their memory) are going to take major
roles in the conclusion, or that Mifune's disciple is going to catch up with Tuskue,
Sword of Doom opts instead for what in 1965 must have seemed the bloodbath to
end all bloodbaths.
Ryunosuke Tsukue's talents are underestimated by his thug associates, and he quite
happily finds himself square in the middle of a gang war, a battle
between him and what must be a hundred opponents. They just keep coming no matter
how many he kills, and Tsukue's true self seems to be liberated by the opportunity
to dispense such wholesale carnage. The key emotion we've seen Tsukue express after
each killing so far has been a gleeful radiance, as if only through murder could he
feel alive. Now he has no time for reflection and just becomes a killing automaton.
Once so shocking, the final conflict now seems less of a jolt. Tsukue may know 1001
ways to carve up a man but the battle is still one of those things where his
surrounding opponents take turns charging, and inexplicably balk at striking as if
they preferred to be struck instead. There are a number of jarring details of wounds
received and hands and fingers sliced off. Tsukue earlier equated the soul of a sword
as inseparable with the soul of the man who uses it, which makes a lot more sense
than trying to fit any concept of honor into this kind of swordplay - all of those
splayed-out quivering losers couldn't have deserved their fates, particularly when
it has been demonstrated that Tsukue is the worst of all.
The B&W photography is austere and compositionally pleasing, while Tatsuya Nakadai,
later of Kurosawa's Kagemusha and Ran is a bafflingly serene psycho
swordsman. Masaru Sato's score carries a lot of punch.
Criterion's DVD of Sword of Doom is a crisp enhanced transfer of this Tohoscope
film, with the expected digital cleanup job. Once again, Geoffrey O'Brien's liner notes
are a godsend of information for reviewers enthusiastic about but unfamiliar with
these Japanese genre films.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Sword of Doom rates:
Supplements: Liner note essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 26, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson