Sword Of Doom
"Yes, do that! That's how you are! Kill Hyoma! Kill everyone! Kill everyone in the world!"
Sword Of Doom is a Japanese film made in 1966 and directed by Kihachi Okamoto. If the title of the film didn't already tip you off to this, Sword Of Doom is one of those samurai genre films for which Japan is so well known and revered. Before I really get started, though, can we all agree that Sword Of Doom is a fucking badass name? I mean, come on. The Japanese title literally means Daibosatsu Pass, which technically makes more sense since the Daibosatsu pass is the very crux of the protagonist's development throughout the course of the film (or his deterioration, to be more accurate). That title, however, is vague in a film noir sort of way that does little to attract attention. The logical questions are "what is the Daibosatsu pass? Where is it? What happens there? Why is it important?" Too many things are left unsaid; it's too subtle. On the other hand, our Americanized title is straight and to the point: SWORD OF DOOM. It's impossible not to be drawn in by that. In fact, I'm betting you clicked on this in the New Writeups box because you thought "holy shit, Sword of Doom? What is that?"
This film stars two of my favorite Japanese actors: Tatsuya Nakadai and the inimitable Toshiro Mifune. To say that Mifune "stars" is a little misleading; his character receives little screen time despite being a significant figure. Mifune usually always steals the scenes he's in, but he's much more reserved here. It is Nakadai, on the other hand, who truly shines in this film. Ironically, this is one of the darkest roles in his entire career.
"Spring 1860 - The Sakurada Gate Incident"
Nakadai stars as Ryunosuke Tsukue, the scion of a prominent samurai family caught up in the last days of the shogunate. The film opens in 1860 with an old man and his granddaughter Omatsu ascending a hill to find a shrine at the Daibosatsu pass. The girl significantly remarks to her grandfather "it's downhill from here." The old man relates a fable about the formation of the two rivers that intersect at the Daibosatsu pass and says that they are there to purify the land and its people. While Omatsu goes to fetch some water, the old man prays to Buddha and asks that he take him soon. An imposing figure appears behind him and with a flick of the sword, grants his wish. The figure descends from the hill and encounters a passerby named Shichibei, whom he threatens with his sword. Shichibei discovers Omatsu crying over her grandfather and we see the killer's face as he walks along the path: this is our hero, Ryunosuke. The shot we see here of Ryunosuke -- walking forward along a path with his back to the camera -- is the most oft-repeated shot in the entire film. Regardless of whoever is in his way at any given time this shot is established, Ryunosuke travels inexorably toward his fate along a clearly demarcated path (the trail of Daibosatsu pass, the road in the forest, the bridge in Sakashita, a hallway, etc.).
Ryunosuke is a laconic nihilist who has three emotions: despair, rage, and Schadenfreude-laced amusement. For most of the film, his face registers no feeling whatsoever and his cold eyes stare listlessly through his target. More unsettling than his dead stare, however, is the occasional lingering smile he gives. Ryunosuke is set to face Bunnojo Utsugi for the mastership of the Kogen Style school in a kendo match. Ryunosuke's father implores his son to simply let Bunnojo win the match and move onto another school since he is skilled enough to master any style he tries his hand at and Bunnojo truly wants to gain the mastership of the Kogen School and it would be an inherited position for his descendants. He then chastises Ryunosuke for his cruel style of fighting; he forces his opponent to make the first move and then cuts him down. Bunnojo's wife, Ohama, visits Ryonosuke's house and asks the same thing. Ryunosuke points out that a swordsman values his skill in the same way that a woman values her chastity, the implication being obvious. She returns to his house that evening and he violently has his way with her in his mill. Ohama's husband finds out about this, however, and divorces her on the spot.
At the match the next day, the entire samurai population of the town has turned out to see it. Plans are made between two of the members in the audience -- Serizawa and Isami Kondo -- to form an organization dedicated to saving the shogun. Despite the fact that the match is supposed to be kendo (i.e., nobody is supposed to die), it is clear that someone will not be walking away from the match. After dancing back and forth between each other for two minutes with either man so much as moving his stick, a draw is declared. Suddenly, Bunnojo lunges at Ryunosuke with a tsuki thrust - a move straight for the throat and one that Ryunosuke specifically denotes as "illegal," an indicator that he is not simply the random killer we might think. Ryunosuke dodges and tosses Bunnojo off of the scaffolding on which they were fighting and onto the ground below, killing him instantly. Ryunosuke is forced to leave town and Ohama begs him to take her with him since she has nowhere else to go. He refuses at first, but after she tips him off about an ambush being planned by Bunnojo's friends (and he slaughters every member of the party in the forest on his way out of town), he lets her come with him.
"Spring 1862 - The Sakashita Incident"
Two years later, Ryunosuke is going by the alias Yoshida and working with the secret group of political assassins formed the day of his match with Bunnojo. The group is far from coherent, however: there is a power struggle going on at the level of middle management and Ryunosuke has allied himself with Serizawa, seemingly because he gets to kill people. They ambush two local administrators and kill them, securing Serizawa's promotion. It is revealed that Ohama and Ryunosuke have a son named Ikutaro. In a scene reminiscent of the Seventh Seal, Ohama remarks that although she and Ryunosuke are outcasts and drifters, their son is full of potential. Expressing no interest in this proposition (aside from anger at being called an "outcast," which he blames on Ohama), Ryunosuke is content to drink sake and stare at the wall. An important aspect of Ryunosuke's personality is revealed here: he is a completely passive individual. He almost never takes the initiative; rather, he only responds and reacts to environmental stimuli. Although it's clear they don't love each other, Ohama at leasts worries about Ryunosuke. Ryunosuke has no feelings toward Ohama or their son and the implication is that their relationship following the rape has been asexual. Ryunosuke stops in at the school of Toranosuke Shimada (Mifune) and demands a match. Shimada's pupil, Hyoma obliges him, but is defeated by Ryunosuke's Silent Form style. Ryunosuke asks Shimada to teach him his style, but he declines. Ryunosuke then discovers that Hyoma is, in fact, Bunnojo's brother and that his own father made Hyoma promise to kill Ryunosuke to prevent his son from killing more people. After Hyoma figures out that Yoshida is really Ryunosuke, Shimada tells his student the only way to defeat him: with the tsuki thrust.
Meanwhile, Omatsu has been taken in by a social climbing "flower teacher" (I have no idea what this means) and receives periodic visits from her "uncle" Shichibei, who is now a wandering thief and vagabond. She gets a job as a servant to the somewhat unbalanced Lord Kamio, a man with whom the Shincho Group -- the organization of which Ryunosuke and Serizawa are members -- are seeking an alliance. Kamio refuses and tells the group to relax and let whatever is going to happen happen (a parallel to Ryunosuke's view of his own destiny). Undeterred, the Shincho decide to assassinate an official named Kiyokawa anyway, but discover that he is travelling with Shimada. The group decides to wait until they part ways and attack Kiyokawa alone. Unfortunately, they attack the wrong palanquin and meet Shimada in battle instead. Not surprisingly, Shimada kills all of the Shincho assassins except for one: Ryunosuke. Ryunosuke can only stare on in abject shock as Shimada systematically cuts down his comrades but makes no effort to attack him. Because Shimada will not advance on Ryunosuke, his passive nihilism prevents him from attacking. Shimada then looks Ryunosuke in the eye and tells him that "the sword is the soul. Study the sword to know the soul. Evil mind, evil sword!" Ryunosuke is left standing speechless as Shimada departs the bloody scene and returns home to drink himself away.
Ryunosuke informs Ohama that Hyoma has challenged him and that he intends to torture Hyoma to death. She finds this appalling and then tells him that he should just "kill everyone" since it's only in his nature. Ryunosuke tells her that he only wants to kill Shimada, but it's clear that Shimada is never going to give him that opportunity and he is bound by his true nature from simply doing away with him on general principle. After Ohama attempts to kill him in his sleep, Ryunosuke chases her and kills her in the water of a small creek behind their house. She lets him do it, saying that his sins will be atoned for after he goes to the duel and Hyoma kills him. Water is a symbol of purification, as per the old man's statement at the beginning of the film to Omatsu.
"Spring 1863 - The Shinsen Group Is Formed"
The final half hour of this film is structured in a highly confusing manner, paralleling Ryunosuke's mental disintegration. It's a year later, and it's clear that Ryunosuke skipped out on the duel with Hyoma and that he left his infant son to die in the house after killing his wife. The Shincho group is reformed as the Shinsen group and Serizawa is now the leader, thanks mainly to Ryunosuke's assistance. Omatsu, Shichibei, and Hyoma all meet by chance in Kyoto and discover the secret of Yoshida's true identity. Coincidentally, he is also in town and they agree to set him up so that Hyoma may finally avenge his brother Bunnojo and consummate the standing grudge. Serizawa tells Ryunosuke that his lieutenant Isami Kondo must be gotten rid of in order to consolidate their control over the group. At the same time, Kondo and three of his men are making plans to get rid of both Serizawa and Ryunosuke. However, Serizawa discovers that Omatsu is spying on them and when he tells Ryunosuke, he flippantly remarks "just kill her." Saying that she is not worth the trouble, Ryunosuke shrugs and tells him to leave her with him. Serizawa does so and goes off to be with his mistress. What happens next is the most bizarre part of the film. Ryunosuke and Omatsu make idle chat as the latter relates a ghost story about a courtesan who committed suicide in the room. Unmoved, Ryunosuke continues drinking his sake until Omatsu absently says the words "Daibosatsu pass." Hearing this phrase, Ryunosuke snaps. He bolts up, unseaths his sword and begins attacking the walls. He screams in anger as he hears the voices and sees the shadows of all the people he has killed. The man goes on a rampage as the internal purge of the Shinsen group begins. Kondo and his men attack Serizawa in his room and he is dispatched with -- you guessed it -- the tsuki thrust. The entire denouement of the plot is thus utterly ruined as Ryunosuke storms through the inn, killing everyone in sight. We see the familiar shot of Ryunosuke walking with his back to the camera, but the path is a series of constricted hallways that turn at odd angles. The slaughter goes on for seven and a half minutes with Ryunosuke totally out of it. As he cuts down his former comrades and they attack back, the film abruptly stops on a freeze-frame of Ryunosuke's crazed expression.
What happens? Does Ryunosuke die? Does he defeat his opponents? Does Hyoma join the fray? Where is Omatsu? Surely Ryunosuke is following his wife's advice: he's killing everyone. These questions go unanswered because as far as Ryunosuke is concerned, they're horribly irrelevant to his existence. (Also, there had evidently been plans for a sequel but these were quashed after the idea received a chilly reception from the studio.) He has no idea of who he is. Is he good? Is he evil? Or is he the instrument of divine justice? Remember that his first killing in the film was the old man at the Daibosatsu pass who was praying for death. Ryunosuke is a living refutation of the Bushido code; the only honor he adheres to is the honor of nothingness, that of mu. He embraces the void of existence by consuming everything that comes into his path but letting alone that which does not. Why didn't he just kill Ohama or leave her earlier than he did? Why did it take her shoving a dagger in his face to get him to kill her? Clearly he has no interest in killing just for the sake of doing so. This film is disjointed and asks difficult questions, but it's one of the most complex and rewarding entries into the genre that I've ever seen.