Sword of Doom Movie Review

"Evil mind, evil sword." This is the mantra of Sword of Doom, Kihachi Okamoto's great 1965 samurai bloodletting. Tatsuya Nakadai's sword is a nihilistic bearer of death, responsible throughout the film for dozens of pointless murders, including an excruciating massacre that serves as the climax. This sequence, coming at the end of the countless deaths we have already seen, seems to take the violence into a higher plane of frenzy, almost as if the blade is injuring the very concepts of right and wrong. Thus is the sword of doom, and thus is Nakadai.

Trying to parse Nakadai's motives out of the gore is a difficult task. Some of the murders result from somewhat legitimate showdowns, especially later in the film when he is used as a killer for a Shogunate organization in decline. Yet other murders seem to come with the brutally simple justification of "practice," including the slaying of an elderly man (which will come back upon Nakadai later). Nakadai becomes an anti-hero in a true sense of the word. He becomes a figure of total nihilism as the film unfolds along its three-year plotline. His presence becomes like a specter of death, a mythological harbinger of the gravest misfortunate. Yet, he has no moral agenda, and little justification for actions, as if his conscience, the only thing that could make him human, was carefully excised from his mind. What results is a towering figure, deadly and frightening in his capriciousness.

The film is a little difficult to follow, as it's loaded with cultural and political references that will be hard to get unless you're an expert in the fall of the Shogun in 1860s Japan. Fortunately, critic Geoffrey O'Brien has provided an informative essay in the notes of the new Criterion DVD that proves illuminating. Sword of Doom is based on the newspaper serial that stretched on for three decades, ending in the 1940s. As such, the film is bound from the start to abbreviate its source material, and one can't help but wonder if a good bit of characterization or plot development had to be left out.

Nevertheless, the plot is intelligible even if Nakadai's motives aren't. After the aforementioned senseless murder of the elderly man, Nakadai goes on to murder a weaker adversary whose wife (Michiyo Aratama) had secured his promise for mercy in exchange for her virtue. The two then enter into an exploitive relationship. The plot really picks up when Yuzo Kayama, brother of the first victim, vows vengeance and trains under an old master who seems to have the secret to defeating Nakadai's effortless style in one simple move. And Nakadai's style is impressive to watch. The key moves - the killing moves - are so swift and passive that they're easy to miss, and more unsettling for it. The same could be true of the fight choreography in general - clean, swift, and brutal. (Though the final attempt at a massacre may ring less gory than promised with today's audience.) It dovetails nicely with Nakadai's killing, which is just as swift and simple, pronouncing the film a testament to the manipulative power of evil. Nakadai's sword is a sword of doom, visiting destruction upon whomever it crosses. But is this curse reflexive: is it the sword that ultimately dooms Nakadai?

Aka Dai-bosatsu tôge.


Comments

Sword of Doom Rating

" Good "

Rating: NR, 1966

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