SWORD OF DOOM (1966, known in Japan as Incident at Daibatsu Pass) is a film directed by Kihachi Okamoto; responsible for acclaimed chambara films such as "Red Lion" and "Zatoichi meets Yojimbo". The film is based on the novel by Kaizan Nakazaro; "Daibatsu Tage", and this film still stands out as one of the most violent, dark epic tale even in today's standards. Please note that the novel has also been adapted into a trilogy called "Daibatsu" (Satan's sword) which presents a more detailed representation of its characters and premise. "Sword of Doom's" main focus is the story of a young samurai named Ryunosuke Tsukure, his beliefs, skills and ruthless indignation.
The backdrop of the film is the 1860's, a period where the Shogunate is slowly taking over and the samurai clans are desperately clinging to their power. The hero or anti-hero is a grim young man named Ryunosuke who is a cold, emotionless master swordsman who trusts no one but his steel. We are introduced to Ryunosuke when he cuts down an old man on a pilgrimage with his daughter when he overhears him asking for his own death for her sake. Ryunosuke arrives to his father's bedside to be scolded because of his ways with the use of his sword, he is scheduled for an exhibition match with a man who is supposed to assume the role of instructor in a school. Ohama (Michiyo Aratama), his wife meets with Ryunosuke to ask him to throw the match in exchange for her body. On the time of the friendly exhibition, the match becomes a duel to the death. What follows next is a downward spiral to murder and madness…
Ryunosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai)seems like evil incarnate, actually he resembles a demon more than a human being when it comes to character. Ryunosuke is a cold heartless killer, but if the viewer pays extra attention, the anti-hero of this film actually kills for self defense and political reasons. You may say that he's never killed anyone who didn't deserve it, but it‘s the manner in which he engages his opponents ands victims. Ryunosuke never gets to express his motivations and background as to why he is the way he is. I believe this is a clever idea to keep his character at arm's length from the audience. It promotes a morbid, dark and chilling aura from the lead character almost up to a supernatural level. His presence is disquietingly intimidating and mysteriously evil.
The swordplay in the film is excellent, it is quick, bloody and never loses any of its visceral punch. The encounter with Ohama's husband is a near-perfect example of a Kendo match, as each of them takes their time to look for an opening. The viewer will realize that the match becomes lethal when they change their form, Ryunosuke assumes his signature "Silent stance" in which he slowly lowers his sword and his opponent raise his in a high stance.
Toshiro Mifune makes a limited but worthwhile appearance as Swordmaster Shimada. Although he never crosses swords with Ryunosuke, the incident in a bridge or pass where he cuts down Rynosuke's associates is fantastic. Mifune displays his acting ability in this extended swordplay which is excellently choreographed. Shimada spews out his righteous indignation and philosophy while cutting down his assailants, that leads even the "hero" of this film to doubt his beliefs after he hears "know the sword, know the mind…". It is rather unclear as to why Ryunosuke decided against the idea of engaging Shimada in combat; perhaps because his band made a mistake in the attack, that Shimada wasn't their intended victim, or is it something more? Whatever the cause, it will change him forever.
The cinematography of the film is quite enthralling. Even with its colorless sequences (it is in Black and White), the music and camera work are very well-executed and way ahead in its time. Toho productions is well known in awesome production values in 1966 that it came as no surprise. Okamoto's direction is almost flawless as he portrays the lead as dark, foreboding presence that exudes violence and death, much similar to an angel of darkness. I was rather disappointed that the sub-plots regarding Hyoma's (Yuzo Kayama)intended vengeance and his budding romance with a pretty young courtesan named Omatsu (Yoko Naito)never came to fruition and effective closure. The climax is satisfying enough on an action standpoint but it did leave some questions unanswered. It opted to focus its sights on Ryunosuke's descent into madness, on a killing spree, cutting down everyone in his path while being haunted by the ‘ghosts' of his empty past.
Ultimately, you will be led to conclude that an "evil soul is an evil sword", that gestures, whether good or bad, are what makes a man. Action defines the essence of a human being. On this aspect, "Sword of Doom" succeeds hands down. Murder and violence can eat a man up from inside, no matter how cold and ruthless one may be. It will extinguish a man from the inside…
Highest Possible Recommendation! [5- stars]
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