The Sword of Doom (1966) 4.86/5 (1)


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Rating: The Good – 94.2
Genre: Jidaigeki
Duration: 119 mins
Director: Kihachi Okamoto
Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Michiyo Aratama, Toshirô Mifune

“The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword. Evil mind, evil sword.” Tatsuya Nakadai takes the lead as an amoral samurai, Ryunosuke Tsukue, who lives frighteningly detached from the world and the people he shares it with. His masterful yet disturbingly idiosyncratic fencing style is the expression of this skewed perspective and is (quite ingeniously) tied inseparably to his character. The story has no overt plot but instead it follows Ryunosuke as he leaves his home village in disgrace and finds what little pleasure he can working as an assassin for a radical militia whom the shogunate engages for clandestine operations. Even with the immortal Toshiro Mifune putting in a memorable turn as the one man Ryunosuke comes to believe he can’t match, The Sword of Doom unquestionably remains Nakadai’s film from start to finish as we watch the evil Ryunosuke descend further and further into a hell of his own creation. From the ice cold stare of his eyes to his grotesquely stilted voice, he breathes a sinister hunger and dangerous malevolence into his character that will chill you to the bone.

Naturally, much of the edge to Nakadai’s performance would be lost if it weren’t for what Kihachi Okamoto was doing behind the camera for this is a masterfully shot and constructed film. At all times, the dark interiors seem to catch what Ryunosuke is reflecting in his eyes and words while the stillness of the camera is as unsettling as Nakadai’s performance as it constantly draws us further into the awful emptiness. The fight sequences are few but startlingly memorable with the central showdown being nothing short of genius for it facilitates the inevitable duel between Ryunosuke and Mifune’s magnetic Shimada Toranosuke, without them ever squaring off against each other. This scene is the ultimate in cinematic subtext for it’s in this moment that the egotistical sociopath and his sword are finally made feel fragile but with no words spoken between them and no obvious interactions shared. It’s also just an awesome piece of film-making driven unerringly by Mifune’s natural burning intensity.

Okamoto’s masterpiece has been both criticised and praised for its erratic and deeply unconventional ending but no matter which way you slice it (pun intended) this is a riveting and frightening character study of a man who in the absence of any moral centre is led by the greedy appetites of “his sword”. There are all sorts of explanations as to why it ends the way it does but when analysed in the context of a film without an overt plot, it makes perfect sense and becomes one of the more punctuating moments in all of cinema. In fact, Coppola (who was obsessed with Japanese cinema of this era) may well have been influenced by it when constructing the ending for his masterpiece The Conversation as the two films close in remarkable similarly fashion.

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