by HELEN GEIB
The main character of The Sword of Doom is a samurai named Ryunosuke Tsukue who kills people for the enjoyment of killing. He kills as opportunity presents. While he has no scruples about cutting down the innocent and the helpless, opportunity most often presents in socially sanctioned duels with other samurai and assassinations as a hired killer for a pro-government paramilitary group. Circumstances and Tsukue’s fearsome skill as a swordsman set the stage for a series of thrilling confrontations, culminating in his climactic immolation in fire, blood, and madness.
The story unfolds over several years in the 1860s, a decade of great political and social unrest in Japan. Tsukue, monstrous and magnetic, is an agent of destruction in public and private life. He commits or instigates murder-for-hire, blackmail, adultery, divorce, illegitimacy. His own father disowns him and prays for his death. Star Tatsuya Nakadai imbues Tsukue with a controlled ferocity that makes his violent end inevitable. The suspense lies in discovering how and when that end will come about.
If this sounds bleak or disheartening, the film is anything but. It’s a ripping good yarn for one thing. For another, the film offers a group of sympathetic supporting characters in opposition to the monstrous Tsukue. Although these “good” characters act in accordance with traditional values like family loyalty, personal sacrifice, and the compulsive pursuit of a “just” revenge, they are also forward looking. The film is far from a simple lament for the passing of the old ways. The good characters embody radical change just as Tsukue does. The difference is that when they break with the past to reach towards each other across class lines, they are agents of creation.
The Sword of Doom was directed by Kihachi Okamoto, who also directed the notable ‘sixties samurai films Samurai Assassin (1965) and Kill! (1968). Like those films, Doom is a succession of striking shots and memorable scenes. Since I last saw the film I have been haunted by the scene of a young swordsman alone in the dimly lit hall of a dojo, practicing a sword thrust over and over by using as his target a ray of sunlight streaming through the single, barred window. The dust motes in the air glitter as the tip of the sword pierces the finger of sunshine.
The Sword of Doom is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new and restored digital transfer with new English subtitles. The only extra is an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien.
New releases this week: Deception, Leatherheads, Run Fat Boy Run, Sex and the City