The Sword of Doom
September 26, 2005
Japan, 1860. It is the era just before the samurai order was dissolved. Ryunosuke (Nakadai), a wandering samurai warrior kills a young woman’s grandfather without provocation. He enters a town and proceeds to shake things up after killing one of the locals in a duel. Toranosuke Shimada (Mifune), a teacher of a school of sword fighting, takes the dead man’s brother under his tutelage so that he can get revenge. Welcome to the world of The Sword of Doom (1965).
The attention to detail is excellent. When Ryunosuke engages a man in a duel, director Kihachi Okamoto pays close attention to the intricate tactics that these men engage in. How the footwork and gripping one’s sword is crucial in anticipating your opponent’s next move. A low fighting stance is unpredictable while adopting a high one is more obvious.
Ryunosuke is a master samurai. He has the most curious fighting style: he does not act but instead reacts to his opponents with deadly efficiency. It is purely defensive. He does nothing unless provoked. In one scene, several men foolishly attack him, leaving themselves open to his devastating response. He is a nihilistic killing machine. However, The Sword of Doom takes a non-judgmental stance with its amoral protagonist. The cheating wife is proactive with Ryunosuke. In the duel, it is his opponent who strikes first. The group of warriors provokes the fight with him.
He is, as one character puts it, “a man from hell.” He is a cruel man as evident by his unprovoked killing of the old man praying for death at the beginning of the film. Despite his awful acts, Ryunosuke lives with the consequences of his actions. He moves in with the woman whose husband he killed in a duel and suffers from torturous nightmares. He follows his own code of honour—a samurai version of Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part II (1974).
Okamoto stages some impressive action sequences throughout his movie. In one scene, Ryunosuke’s men attack Shimada in a snowstorm. Like Ryunosuke, Shimada is a master samurai but with a much more aggressive fighting style and he deals with them swiftly and with deadly force while Ryunosuke watches unable to act unless personally attacked.
The Sword of Doom is something of an oddity—it is a psychological samurai film, a case study of an amoral warrior who follows his own, unique path. As the essay, included in the accompanying booklet points out, Okamoto’s film anticipates (and may very well have influenced) the trend of gritty, nihilistic, blood-soaked films in the late ’60 and into the ‘70s, such as The Wild Bunch (1969).
Included is an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien that is a decent primer for those not familiar with this movie.