“The Sword of Doom” – A.J. Hakari

In the past, I’ve professed my inclination towards samurai films of more complex natures. Now I’m as excited to see the likes of Zatoichi slash up evildoers as much as the next chambara nerd, but it’s even better when a movie explores the tricky side of living life by the Bushido code. Like the classic period piece Gate of Hell, The Sword of Doom centers on what happens when an unsavory soul uses the ideas of honor and saving face to his own twisted advantage. It may not be as resonating or successful as the former, but rest assured that there’s much ado about The Sword of Doom to stick with you for quite a while.

Tatsuya Nakadai (High and Low) plays Ryunosuke Tsukue, a master swordsman and one guy you’d pray to never meet. Years spent perfecting his craft have warped Ryunosuke’s mind, molding him into a cold-blooded killer who cuts down adversaries without mercy. On the day he’s to engage a fellow fencing pro in a match, everyone pleads with him to show some restraint and allow his opponent to win. But not only does he swiftly slay the other man, Ryunosuke beds the guy’s wife (Michiyo Aratama) after promising not to do so. For the next couple of years, Ryunosuke attempts to lead a normal life, but it’s not long before his old urges re-emerge. He lends his skills to a group of ronin who specialize in taking down political targets, though it’s another foe who will put his swordplay to the ultimate test. Hyoma Utsugi (Yuzo Kayama), the brother of the man Ryunosuke killed all those years ago, is still out for blood. But the question remains as to whether Hyoma will catch up to his quarry or if Ryunosuke’s own demons will do him in first.

The Sword of Doom comes to us courtesty of director Kihachi Okamoto, who also helmed a film I recently reviewed, Kill! That picture was another tale involving much swordplay, albeit one that put its two leads on opposing sides and, with humorous touches, dissected what it actually meant to be a samurai. The Sword of Doom follows along the same lines, only with much more dark and sinister overtones. Ryunosuke may be the main character, but in no way is he a quintessential good guy. This fella’s got a mighty mean streak, though his evil doesn’t begin and end at slicing up those he perceives to be his foes. He gets away with what he does by bending the Bushido system to his will, coasting through his existence on one technicality after another. All of Ryunosuke’s battles are either provoked or ordered by others, his very fighting style designed to exploit the other guy’s defensive weaknesses. But not once does Okamoto excuse the man’s cruel behavior. Instead, he uses him to make a wise statement on how dignity plays an important part in a samurai’s life, setting the stage for Ryunosuke to enact his own personal tragedy.

With a story this centered on one character and his motivations, you’d expect the lead actor to be in pristine working order. Thankfully, Nakadai doesn’t disappoint, delivering startling performance as Ryunosuke. Instead of playing him as an over-the-top caricature, Nakadai inhabits his role with chilling subtlety. Ryunosuke has long since accepted who he is and cares not how others view him. He’s a hurricane of a character that Nakadai does a magnificent job of wrangling in, allowing him to explode and go batshit bonkers only in the film’s final moments. If there’s a yang to Ryunosuke’s yin, in comes in the form of fencing instructor Shimada, played by the one and only Toshiro Mifune. Shimada lays dormant for most of his minimal screen time, only to unleash his skills in a ferocious battle scene in which he intones about Ryunosuke’s poisoned mind. While the majority of the supporting players bleed into one another, these two characters stick out and engage in a compelling ethical skirmish.

It’s unfortunate that as amazing as Nakadai is in The Sword of Doom, the story got the shaft big-time. Though most everything comes together in the end, the film still feels bloated with too many unnecessary subplots that weigh it down and render the running time a little sluggish. But with Nakadai’s electrifying performance still intact, there’s enough reason to seek out The Sword of Doom and embrace the darkness yourself.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

Read Chris Luedtke’s The Sword of Doom review here.

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