THE SWORD OF DOOM | REVIEW & ANALYSIS
Updated: Jul 13
A Sociopath Samurai In The Most Beautiful Chambara Ever
Director: Kihachi Okamoto
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Michiyo Aratama, Yûzô Kayama, Yôko Naitô, Toshiro Mifune
Studio: Toho/Takarazuka Eiga
His eyes went blank. The tiniest of smiles quivered in the corner of his mouth. Only when his blade tasted blood did the voices die out. But the moment of bliss never lasted. Soon, whispers again turned to screams.
Introducing The Sword of Doom
The Sword of Doom was an act of cinematic balance. It was beautiful yet gruesome, artistic yet exploitive, and confident yet despairing. The center of attention was a masterless samurai, haunted by the demons of an assassin's past.
Antiheroes were not uncommon at the time, but The Sword of Doom didn't sit well with Japanese audiences. Critics searched in vain for the killer's motive but came up empty-handed when trying to make sense of a sociopath samurai, utterly consumed by bloodlust.
«The critics argued that there had to be a reason … in our film there was none … thus it didn't get a very good reception in Japan … but in America they loved it.»
– Tatsuya Nakadai –
In America, The Sword of Doom was much better received. As it turned out, there was a lot more to the film than its senseless violence might suggest. Soon enough, infamy turned to respect. Half a century later, it was one of the highest-rated samurai films of all time on IMDB.
In hindsight, Tatsuya Nakadai's brilliant portrayal of a maniacal samurai might have been ahead of its time. But he only did as instructed by Okamoto, who was forced by Toho to direct The Sword of Doom. Apparently, the darkness in Nakadai's eyes was as much a reflection of the filmmaker's doom as it was demons of his own.
A Doomed Production Turned To Triumph
Before The Sword of Doom, Nakadai had starred in another Okamoto film called The Age of Assassins. It was an experimental conspiracy thriller loaded with pitch-black humor and sociopolitical satire. The executives at Toho were not pleased and held back The Age of Assassins until Okamoto had finished The Sword of Doom.
In return, Okamoto delivered one of the darkest samurai films ever made. It would never have worked had it not been for Nakadai's haunting performance. Taking the lead as the sociopath protagonist Ryunosuke Tsukue, Nakadai conjured a wholly unsettling atmosphere.
Waves of torment from inner demons washed away Tsukue's honor. All that was left was apathy, emptiness, and bloodthirst. Nakadai balanced on a fine line between theatricality and realism but ultimately made a convincing portrayal of madness.
«People often talk about «getting into character. But that's not actually doable.
You can only play it by bringing forth something that is already within you.»
– Tatsuya Nakadai –
Nakadai admitted that he struggled with the role. However, in hindsight, Tsukue in The Sword of Doom became a favorite among his samurai roles. Only Toshiro Mifune matched his on-screen presence, something Okamoto capitalized on by making one of the most memorable sword fights in any samurai film.
Snow-filled swordplay was a rarity in 60s Japanese samurai movies, which made the visual impact even stronger when Mifune drew the sword in heavy snowfall. It matched the chilling atmosphere perfectly and set the stage for a samurai duel of epic proportions. But, alas, the two masters never got to cross swords.
Fortunately, the dialogue between Nakadai and Mifune was as lethal as their blades. The tension between them never let go, much thanks to Okamoto's eclectic use of tasteful slow-moving long takes, rapid pans, and sudden closeups.
The Sword of Doom was an unashamed mix of highbrow and lowbrow filmmaking. It was like a hybrid film that borrowed elements from Mizoguchi and Hideo Gosha, like an unholy marriage between arthouse and exploitation.
Okamoto balanced his influences perfectly and delivered some of the most impactful samurai scenes in history, like the first actual match. The meant-to-be non-lethal fencing competition went terribly wrong. The camera slowed down and focused on the wooden floors and steady feet while the fight ended instantly.
The juxtaposition of lingering details and lightning-fast sword slinging gave a picturesque feel. This was also the case with the snow-filled sequences. Coupled with stark lighting, the winter images perfectly enhanced the unsettling ambiance.
The icing on the bloodred cake was Okamoto's effective use of sound. The opening credits set the tone as the ominous score of Masaru Sato invited us into the mind of a killer. The music was subdued but astute and took all visitors on a ride-along next to a sociopath's sudden highs and crushing lows.
The sound of terror came in many forms, though. When the protagonist forced himself on a pleading woman, tension was magnified by the rhythmic sound of a watermill. Later, the same couple broke into a surprising duet, which underlined just how willing Okamoto was to think outside the box when making The Sword of Doom.
The Story of a Sociopath Samurai
To discuss the message in The Sword of Doom, we first need to look at the story. It told the tale of Ryunosuke Tsukue, a masterless samurai who had lost his way. So frightful had he become that even his bedridden father was afraid to look him in the eye. We first encountered Tsukue at The Great Boddhisatva Pass (Dai-bosattsu Tôge).
There, a couple of pilgrims – a grandfather and his daughter – were on their way to Edo. After a steep hill climb, they stopped at a local shrine to rest. The daughter ran to fetch water when the old man was surprised by Tsukue's sword of doom.
Shortly after that, Tsukue was to enter a friendly competition, in which he would make a power play to ensure the influence of his clan. It all went dreadfully wrong when he «accidentally» slew his opponent.
The incident forced Tsukue to flee from his clan and join a band of masterless samurais who took on the government's dirty work to sustain themselves. His past soon caught up with him, though, as the brother of the accidentally slain samurai was out to get revenge.
«I trust only my sword in this world. When I fight, I have no family.»
– Ryunosuke Tsukue –
After that, when Tsukue was looking to sniff out a strong opponent, he met the vengeful brother by accident. At that time, the brother was the apprentice of a master samurai (Toshiro Mifune) who had caught Tsukue's attention. But, to Tsukue's disadvantage, his opponents learned more about him than he did about them.
Later, Tsukue was shocked to learn just how strong his opponent was. Then, during a large snowfall in mid-winter, Tsukue's band of assassins ambushed the samurai master. Too late, they realized their underestimation. It backfired on them in the worst way imaginable, but the scene was a highlight in Mifune's career.
In tandem with this storyline, there was a side-story in which the vengeful brother was wooing a young woman. She was enigmatic, set to become a courtesan, and close with her elusive uncle. By tight storytelling and nifty twists, Okamoto masterfully connected the subplots of the girl and her uncle to the main story.
It all culminated in a fitting yet somewhat unsatisfying finale. When lodged at a courtesan brothel in Kyoto, Tsukue suddenly heard his victims' voices. His mental breakdown ended in chaos and the cutting down of his fellow assassins by the dozen. Then, out of the blue, in the middle of the bloodbath … The end.
The Sword of Doom Analysis
The tale of Ryunosuke Tsukue was not meant to end so abruptly, but we'll get back to that in the next chapter. However, to understand the ending, we first need to consider the underlying messages in The Sword of Doom. Granted, Okamoto had his personal reasons for making the darkest samurai film of its time, but could that be all?
Some might reason that nihility begets nihility, which would argue that Tsukue was the product of a time and a place in which morals were absent, and chaos ruled. In defiance of social order and samurai codes, Tsukue was the very personification of violent uproar. But where did this uproar come from?
«The Sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword. Evil mind, evil sword.»
– Toranosuke Shimada (Mifune) –
A couple of theories comes to mind. Let's first consider the historical context of the story. It was set in a time when samurais were on the brink of becoming obsolete, and the Tokugawa shogunate was coming to an end. It was a dark time for masterful sword slingers indeed when the balance of power shifted.
Still, the darkness in Tsukue appeared to be fueled by something more than the violent power struggles in the world around him. He might have been the reflection of a violent era, but his madness seemed to be rooted in something far more personal.
Nakadai spoke about the differences between the original novel and Okamoto's Sword of Doom. Initially, the story was meant to serve as a parable of Mahayana Buddhism and the workings of resurrection and karma. In the movie, Tsukue was transformed into a monster who slew his victims without reason or purpose.
Though Nakadai was correct in pointing out Tsukue's lacking motives, the film hardly seemed to avoid the Buddhist notion of karmic retribution. If Tsukue wasn't punished enough by his inner demons in this life, the film's ending gave new meaning to the term poetic justice.
All the darkness and gloom in The Sword of Doom culminated in a 15-minute inferno from the depths of Tsukue's twisted mind. Suddenly, his inner demons manifested around him like apparitions from beyond. Ominous shadows came at him from all sides. No matter how much he cut, the voices never went away.
«I ought to have been in the Guinness Book of Records
for cutting down that many people!»
– Tatsuya Nakadai –
The sequence was equally surreal and terrifying. In a wild slaughter of demons and men, Tsukue was trapped in a nightmare of his own making. The bloodlust had kept him calm so far, but it also chipped away at his sanity. His sword doomed more than most samurai blades, but in the end, he ended up carving his own doom.
In the middle of this nightmare, a worn down and merciless Tsukue slashed his way towards certain death, when suddenly, his face froze in torment, quite literally. In the heat of battle, while the deadliest warrior faced an unbeatable foe, he got freeze-framed, forever trapped in his personal hell.
From Popular Serial-Novel To Cancelled Film-Series
As slyly teased above, we'll now get back to the abrupt ending of The Sword of Doom. Like the newspaper serial it was based on, it was not meant to end so suddenly but to be followed by sequels. By chance, the intended film series was cut short, just like the original serial.
Kaizan Nakazato originally wrote the story. It was first serialized in Japanese newspapers from 1913 to 1944 and became very popular. Nakazato's ambition was to write the longest novel in the world, but he died before finishing the story about Ryunosuke Tsukue. The newspaper episodes were later published as a novel.
Likewise, Okamoto also had bigger plans for The Sword of Doom, but he never got to realize the making of the film series. The tale of Tsukue was not meant to be over, which was why central story elements from the book were omitted. However, due to the lack of interest in Japan, the movie's story was forever ended with a freeze-frame.
In hindsight, it might have been just as well. In the book, Tsukue went blind and joined the imperial faction, which seemed like an odd turn of events. The mysteriously poetic ending could easily have been counteracted if the story went another way, something it most probably would have if Toho had anything to say about it.
Parallels of Doom
Even though Okamoto did something as unusual as diving head-first into the mind of a sociopath, he was still a filmmaker of his time. As mentioned, The Sword of Doom had the painterly panache of Mizoguchi and the hardboiled samurai sword slinging of Gosha, like Sansho The Bailiff and Three Outlaw Samurai in one.
The film style was pristine yet grim and balanced perfectly between arthouse and exploitation. Therefore, it is not so surprising to learn that Okamoto was associated with the Japanese new wave, being that genre-blending was one of their calling cards.
It is also no surprise that many have drawn parallels between The Sword of Doom and the films of Quentin Tarantino. Not only did the bloodshed in Kill Bill mirror the slayings in Okamoto's film, but the storytelling techniques also had a lot in common.
Many have voiced their complaints about The Sword of Doom's unresolved subplots and ending, but actually, most loose ends were cleverly integrated with the main story. Some might even call it Tarantino-esque, though Tarantino was, in fact, Okamoto-esque.
Another Tarantino parallel in The Sword of Doom was the dialogue, which was the main driving force of the narrative. As masterfully executed as the action scenes were, the dialogue brought out the true darkness in Tsukue. It was not too convoluted but deep and twisted enough to send chills down our spines.
Final Verdict for The Sword of Doom
The Sword of Doom has long since earned a cult following worldwide, and for a good reason. It was enigmatic, thrilling, brutal, and repulsive all at once. Not only was it an act of cinematic balance, but it was also a frightful character study.
The main attraction was an antihero so dastardly vile that Japan rejected him altogether, but audiences abroad welcomed Tsukue with open arms. More than 50 years later, The Sword of Doom still loomed in the shadows of giant samurai films like Seven Samurai, Harakiri, and The 47 Ronin, but it had also earned its place in film history.
The Sword of Doom is criminally underrated, which is underlined by its high rating on IMDB. Nevertheless, it has slashed its way through critics and disbelievers and much deservedly deserves the stamp of a Japanese samurai classic. It might even be the most beautiful chambara film ever made.
PS: Chambara is what they called exploitation samurai films in the 60s and 70s (source).
Cinema Sojourns: The Age of Assassins (1967)
Criterion.com: The Sword of Doom: Calligraphy in Blood
Film Comment: Finest Hour: Army of One
Pop Matters: A 'Sword of Doom' in a Power vacuum
The Twin Geeks: The Sword of Doom: Anatomy of an Ending
Wall Street Journal: He's a Still-Working Actor From Japan's Golden Age