Review: The Sword of Doom (1966)

I’m going to begin my review of The Sword of Doom (TSOD) with something that will seem like a spoiler.  Maybe it is, but I think you’ll enjoy the picture more if you know this up front.  TSOD was never intended to be a standalone film.  It was meant to be the first in a series, and it shows.  According to Wikipedia, it’s based on an extremely long, multi-volume novel by Kaizan Nakazato.  I was curious about the author, thinking that this might be better as a novel but sadly the only books I could find were in the original Japanese. That leaves me to wonder what the rest of the story holds, but that’s the feeling many get when watching TSOD.

The story is interesting.  Main character (he isn’t exactly a protagonist in the strictest sense) Ryunosuke Tsukue, played by the brilliant and prolific Tatsuya Nakadai, is a brutal samurai who seems to be exploring the limits of his own sadistic depravity.  He seems to have no honor and no desire to embrace real relationships with others.  In this day and age we have a word for that: psychopath.  And yet, he is a maestro with a sword, the practitioner of an obscure style of swordplay that he has mastered.  And yet, something makes him push the limits of society to the breaking point and lose his status.  Reflecting on his downfall brings him no respite as he doesn’t seem to see his own choices as mistakes.  Instead, he sees those he’s wronged as phantoms that haunt him as he tries to move on.

As a standalone film, it’s a beautiful failure.  The elegant use of composition and shot selection is truly impressive.  Cinematographer Hiroshi Murai worked wonders here.  I saw this on the Criterion DVD release and I can’t help but wonder what it would look like on blu ray.  The only other film of the same era that has more punch packed into each of its images is the original Harakiri.  This is a gorgeous movie, which is why it’s so distressing that it simply doesn’t work without the planned sequels.

The plot, while interesting, is a torn patchwork of neglected threads.  Key issues are left to dangle, presumably because they were going to be picked up in the subsequent films.  But when you watch this film alone, it really seems like it was carelessly scripted.  Perhaps it has something to do with my western sensibilities, but I didn’t understand why we never got to see certain things happen that the plot seemed to be obviously building toward.

There are a lot of fights and some of the choreography is interesting, but it’s hard to endorse a film on the isolated strength of its fights.  That’s a little like recommending a movie because the soundtrack is good.  All of the elements have to reinforce one another or none of them work.  The success of cinematic swordplay rests solely on the development of the characters and their situations.

I don’t think it’s any secret that people either love or hate the somewhat ambiguous ending.  The ones who love it seem to think it was an intentional statement about the main character instead of the cliffhanger it would have been in the series.  The ones who hate it look at it like it’s The Empire Strikes Back without Return of the Jedi.  While I can see both points of view, I have to fall in the middle ground of hating the ending but sympathizing with director Kihachi Okamoto’s intention.  I’m pretty sure that, in the end, he was bummed out by the existing ending too.

Every movie has its pluses and minuses, but seldom is there such disparity between the craft employed in making a film and the very same film’s dramatic potential.  I can only recommend this one for those viewers who are interested in cinematography.

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