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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Sword of Doom (Blu-ray)
The Sword of Doom (Blu-ray)
The Criterion Collection // Unrated // January 6, 2015 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Ian Jane | posted January 24, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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The Movie:

Kihachi Okamoto (who recently passed on just last month…) cut his teeth on some crime films before directing the picture that he'd be most remembered for, Sword Of Doom (known in Japan as The Incident At Daibosatsu Pass). He also handled directorial chores on such classic swordplay films like Red Lion and Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo.

Ryunosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai of Akira Kurosawa's Ran) is a young samurai whose emotions tend to run a little bit on the cold side. He's not exactly the friendliest of guys, but he's an expert with his sword. When it comes time for an important fencing exhibition the wife of his designated opponent, a woman named Ohama (Michiyo Aratama), asks him to throw the match. He tells her that to the samurai, the sword is as important as virtue is to a woman, alluding to what comes next. They meet under cover of the darkness, and he has his way with her. She hopes that this will convince him to throw the match, but when it comes time for the showdown, her husband becomes enraged when he finds out about their encounter and in turn uses an illegal move. Ryunosuke counters it, and his opponent ends up dead.

As the plot progresses, the brother of Ryunosuke's opponent, Hyoma Utsuki (Yuzo Kayama of Kurosawa's Red Beard), begins to chase down the young samurai after training with a master swordsman named Shimada (Japanese cinema icon, Toshiro Mifune, of The Seven Samurai). Hyoma also develops a romantic relationship with a young courtesan named Omatsu (Yoko Naito) who further entwines the destiny of the two samurai. Ryunosuke teams up with a gang of young samurai assassins and after working with them for a little while, things turn very sour leading up to the inevitable showdown that, when finally occurs, doesn't at all play out like you'd expect it to.

Sword Of Doom does an exceptional job of trailing Ryunosuke on his journey from fledgling samurai to full-fledged demon. We see his character develop across the films two hour running time into something almost resembling a misguided angel of vengeance. He kills without mercy and he kills without compassion and the further along the path he travels, the more cold and the more calculating he becomes, which all culminates in the final scene in which he can no longer contain his rage or his feelings anymore and he snaps and lets it all out in one of the greatest displays of cinematic rage this side of the ending of Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch.

Every one that Ryunosuke encounters sees him as an embodiment of pure evil, as mentioned, a literal demon. While there's a very strong case for that, the best evidence being the first scene where, as we're introduced to Ryunosuke, he slaughters an old man out on a pilgrimage with his granddaughter (a seemingly merciless act that will come back to haunt him later in the film). Part of the reasoning behind the assumption that Ryunosuke, at least in this film, is such a bastard is because this film is only one part of a larger whole. Sword Of Doom does not adapt the entire story that was laid out in Kaizen Nakazoto's novel, which was very popular in Japan before this film was made. Without prior knowledge of the source material, one can only take the film at face value (the liner notes accompanying this release do a very good job of explaining this rather off phenomena). If you look past the surface of the film, and think about Ryunosuke's actions and the reasoning behind them, and you'll notice that, okay, yes, he is running around slaughtering all manner of people but none of these people are particularly innocent or, in his eyes, undeserving of what he doles out to them, hence the comparison to an angel of vengeance.

The performances in the film are solid all around, with Tatsuya Nakadai standing out in his phenomenal turn as Ryunosuke, bringing death to those who either deserve it, or ask for it (quite literally, and somewhat metaphorically). Despite the fact that he's a deplorable sort, you'll still find yourself rooting for him at the end of the film when he squares off against insurmountable odds. Toshiro Mifune, though really limited to a supporting role despite the fact that he's top billed in the opening credits (a testament to his popularity in Japan during the time that the film was made) is as reliable as always as the fencing instructor. Yuzo Kayama's character is also interesting. We should feel sorry for him and want him to avenge his brother's death and run off with the courtesan, but that doesn't happen, really, Ryunosuke remains the focus of the film throughout.

Aside from the characters, what stands out in the film are the action set pieces, and the fencing scenes. One intense moment where Ryunosuke engages in a duel without once swinging his sword is an interesting take on the samurai ideal, and goes to demonstrate how well trained some of these men were. Aside from the blood soaked finale in the room with the blinds, where Ryunosuke lashes out wildly and almost blindly against anything and everything in his way, the other beautifully staged combat sequence is shot out doors in a snowy alley. The blood and corpses make for an interesting visual and allegorical contrast against the pure white snow.

Hiroshi Murai's cinematography (the same Hiroshi Murai who worked on Yasuzo Msaumura's visually stunning Afraid To Die) is eye catching from the very beginning. He makes full use of the 2.35.1 widescreen frame and some of the way that the shots are arranged and put together shows so much intricacy and attention to detail that even if there was no dialogue whatsoever in the film, or no real story being told, the film would be a raving success based on the visuals alone. In short, this movie looks just gorgeous and the black and white film stock lends it an air of antiquity that adds yet another layer of genuine 'coolness' to the movie.

So while aspects of the story are missing or not quite capitalized on, and because of that sometimes the film plays as a little bit confusing if you don't get fully engrossed in it and pay attention, Sword Of Doom is such a wonderful looking movie that it succeeds on those visual merits alone. Add to that the fact that the central character (or anti-hero) in the form of Ryunosuke is one of cinema's coldest and coolest killers and that even by today's standards the final scene packs one Hell of an impact, then Sword Of Doom becomes essential viewing for fans of 'Samurai Cinema.'

The Blu-ray:

Sword Of Doom is presented on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 2.35.1 widescreen. The black and white picture shows strong detail throughout with deep blacks and warm whites and grays in the picture. Contrast might bloom a tiny bit here and there but that looks to be how the movie was shot (the DVD shows this too) and it's really a pretty minor thing that most won't likely notice in the first place. Close up shots look the best, you can count the pores on the actors' faces if you want, but medium and those epic looking long distance shots also show off a lot more texture, depth and detail than we've seen before. The picture is crisp and clean, no issues with any major print damage, while a natural coat of film grain feels appropriate and ‘right' for the transfer. All in all, the movie looks excellent here.


The only audio option provided on the disc is a Japanese language LPCM Mono track with optional subtitles provided in English only. For an older mono mix, this track has pretty decent depth, most noticeably when it comes to the score which sounds richer and fuller than it did on the DVD release. The levels are properly balanced and there are no issues with any hiss or distortion to note.


The main extra on the disc is a commentary track with film historian Stephen Prince newly recorded for this release (it was not included on the previous DVD release). Prince talks about how Okamoto worked as a contract director for the same studio that Kurosawa was so often associated with, which explains why the directors often worked with many of the same actors. Prince talks about some of the red herrings used in the film, how the script here is atypical of Shinobu Hashimoto's writing style, the novel that the movie is based on and of course, the merits of the production values, directing style and performances. It's a very fast paced and informative track that makes some astute observations about some of the foreshadowing featured in the movie, the film's reception in Japan compared to how it was embraced in the west, and the importance of the swordplay and fight choreography to the film's success.

Rounding out the extras on the disc are a theatrical trailer, menus and chapter selection. Inside the case, however, there are some very well written liner notes from Geoffrey O'Brien. A word of caution

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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