The Sword of Doom (1966) – Repost Review

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[A quick state of the author: I have not watched any new movies, read any new books, lifted any weights, or hiked any trails this weekend. I have, however, slept for about eighteen hours. Hence this repost. It’s slightly incoherent even after I rewrote it some but hope you enjoy anyway.]

So, once upon a time a serial novel titled Dai-bosatsu Toge–“Great Bodhisavatta Pass,” describing the evocative setting of the tone-setting opening scene–was written by an author named Kaizan Nakazato. English-language information is limited, but Nakazato continued to write the damn thing for twenty years, making one of if not the longest novels ever written, blah blah blah. This isn’t a review of the book, which (on aquisition via an interlibrary loan wasn’t all that great); it’s a brief overview of the 1966 movie starring Tatsuya Nakadai and Toshiro Mifune.

There are actually several movie adaptations: a turgid 1957 trilogy, a slightly more lively adaption in 1960 with the lurid English title of “Satan’s Sword.” Amazingly, some kind soul has put the latter on Youtube. Even more amazingly, subtitles exist. It undeniably has its moments.

However, both are surpassed by the 1966 remake in just about every way, from the crisp chiaroscuro cinematography, to the casting, to the choreography. And probably to other things that don’t start with Cs.

The plot is character-driven: a man without the desire to abide by the rules of polite society loses his position in it (and doesn’t care). Another man who wants revenge is aided in his quest, because he is a decent person and his aims are just (and because the audience needs someone to root for). A young woman bounces from misfortune to misfortune, but keeps her dignity and self-reliance intact. Another woman brings misfortune upon herself and, well, doesn’t survive it.

Or, as I describe it when in a hurry, “There’s this crazy samurai guy who kills people and then feels guilty, but doesn’t really understand what he’s feeling and loses his home and position goes crazier, and then he kills more people and loses more and goes even crazier, and then he just keeps on going.” But the movie isn’t devoid of worthwhile, heroic characters–which is what, apart from Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance, actually makes this movie worth watching.

This film hinges on Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance as a psychopath who almost understands how screwed up he is, someone whose occasional flashes of human emotion–desire for approval, wistful reminiscing over the past, surprise at meeting an old retainer–only make his ultimate rejection of (or inability to sustain) them hurt the more and only accelerate his spiral into the ultimate violent break.

Nakadai is mesmerizing…

…but it’s the fact that we have actual sympathetic, innocent, and righteous characters to root for that makes this a balanced story. Omatsu, a girl whose only living relative was killed by Ryunosuke as a test of his swordsmanship, sees her situation fall from bad to worse, ultimately ending up in a brothel despite the efforts of her adoptive uncle to rescue her–but yet retaining a kind and hopeful nature. Hyoma, brother of a man killed by Ryunosuke (actually, I’m a little iffy on the morality of seeking vengeance on a man who killed your brother in self-defense, but anyhow) studies the sword…but without losing himself in his quest. There’s Shichibei, who despite being a thief is the most moral person in the story, protecting Omatsu and helping Hyoma at no benefit to himself. And there’s the magnificent Toshiro Mifune as swordsmaster Shimada, who delivers the only rebuke to Ryunosuke that his twisted mind is capable of comprehending: by refusing to fight a man whose evil soul–not his skill in battle–makes him an unworthy opponent.

My takeaway theory goes: Ryunosuke is the main character and the moral of this story is, “Don’t be like Ryunosuke.” Mostly it’s because my favorite part of this movie when the weight of all that he has done and lost and the realization of how far removed from humanity he has become all comes crashing down on him–and he reacts the only way he knows how.

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We’ve known Ryunosuke as the man he is from the opening scene, when an elderly pilgrim prays at the shrine on the Great Bodhisavatta Pass for Merciful Buddha to take him swiftly, that he may no longer be a burden to his young granddaughter….only for Ryunosuke to materialize behind him, kill him with a single blow and walk calmly away, satisfied. Years later, however, a Ryunosuke who has landed in a volatile situation, among political enemies, has made a promise to betray and murder his friends, and aside from that promise has virtually nothing left  in his life or possession except for that same sword, meets a girl who tells him that she was once at the Great Bodhisavatta Pass, with her grandfather–that he was cruelly and senselessly murdered–

He flips the fuck out.

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Nearly ten minutes of excellently-choreographed, shot, and composed combat ensue, with Ryunosuke taking on endless hordes of enemies, incurring multiple and increasingly horrifying and debilitating injuries–

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–transformed into something inhuman, something that can’t lose, can’t escape, can’t win–and can’t die.

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The film ends, unsatisfyingly without resolving any of it’s other subplots, on that note. Filmmakers expected to continue the trilogy but the money didn’t come through and sadly this didn’t happen. But, it’s an appropriate ending. There is no escape from self-made hells; there is no entry for anyone who doesn’t belong there, either. Carrying the story forward would weaken it.

Incidentally, if you do buy the DVD, don’t bother with the commentary track; the guy has an idee fixe about Ryunosuke’s subsumed homosexuality and it isn’t particularly interesting apart from that.

Rated: “Is that the only thing he does, talk slowly and kill people?” –A Lady of Skaith

3 thoughts on “The Sword of Doom (1966) – Repost Review

    1. His role is small, but important, and he definitely makes the most of his screentime.

      If Tatsuya Nakadai impresses in this movie (and I can’t see how he doesn’t), another to potentially check out is “Goyokin,” where he plays a good guy ronin haunted by the mistakes (and massacres) of the past.

      Liked by 1 person

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