The Sword of Doom

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #280: Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom.


As I watched this, I kept think­ing that if Samuel Fuller had been Japanese, he would have made The Sword of Doom. This film has the cu­ri­ous mix of shlock and art, bru­tal­i­ty and grace that Fuller was known for. Even the me­chan­ics of the schlock and art are par­al­lel. The shlock cen­ters around the ac­tion and plot, while the art comes through in shot se­lec­tion and edit­ing. Even the con­clu­sion is Fulleresque, when the shlock gets lever­aged in­to an am­bigu­ous ques­tion aimed at the au­di­ence. I’m go­ing to need to re­watch Shock Corridor soon, so I can stitch it back to Okamoto’s film.

The Sword of Doom, once again like Shock Corridor, is an ex­am­i­na­tion of the hu­man psy­che. The main char­ac­ter, Ryonosuke, is a mas­ter swords­man, com­plete­ly un­read­able in re­gard to fenc­ing style and emo­tion. He kills for plea­sure or pow­er, his ex­act rea­son­ing is un­known, but the en­e­mies he cre­ates, both known and un­known, fol­low him seek­ing re­venge. As do the dead. He ends up sup­port­ing the ex-wife of one of his vic­tims and sells him­self out to groups of ronin as back­up for as­sas­si­na­tion af­ter as­sas­si­na­tion. If I was a bit more knowl­edge­able about Japanese his­to­ry as it con­cerns the fall of the Tokugawa shogu­nate I’d prob­a­bly be able to place a bit more con­text to his ac­tions. I might be miss­ing a whole lay­er of ap­plic­a­bil­i­ty here.

Ryonosuke kills his way through a few more years, in­clud­ing killing the woman he sup­port­ed and her child. He is bent on killing the broth­er of the woman he killed’s hus­band whom he killed. Brother is just as in­tent on killing Ryonosuke, at the be­hest of Ryonosuke’s late fa­ther. At least there is some par­i­ty here. Everyone wants Ryonosuke dead, and Ryonosuke wants to kill every­one. Meanwhile, the grand-daugh­ter of a man that Ryonosuke killed is stuck in geisha-train­ing and a thief that Ryonosuke al­most killed who has sup­port­ed the grand-daugh­ter of the man that Ryonosuke killed is try­ing to free her. They end up com­ing in­to con­tact with the broth­er of the dead hus­band with the dead wife and dead child that Ryonosuke killed. Ryonosuke ends up with the grand-daugh­ter of the [oh, fuck it] in a room where he has just been asked to kill the right-hand man of the boss he serves. 

The pos­si­bil­i­ty of more death fi­nal­ly catch­es up with him and Ryonosuke is dri­ven mad by the shades of those he has killed. He tries to kill them again, but the ronin with whom he is cur­rent­ly as­so­ci­at­ed try to kill him in or­der to stop the mad­ness. Of course, he kills most of them. The film ends dur­ing this bat­tle, so like­ly, no one gets their vengeance.

The fenc­ing did not im­press me. I could be a badass samu­rai judg­ing by the qual­i­ty of Ryonosuke’s op­po­nents. Most of them just run past him with their katana held high. They don’t even try to hit him. It is like chop­ping bam­boo. Yet the fo­cus on Ryonosuke’s gen­er­al emo­tion­less as­pect as it grows through­out the film and the bat­tle with the shades [pun oh so very in­tend­ed] are ge­nius scenes. The shade fight is on par with the house of mir­rors from The Lady of Shanghai in terms of cin­e­mat­ic artistry. There are a cou­ple hun­dred oth­er dead samu­rai in this film [some of which you can see be­low] but I doubt you want to hear about them. Samurai must have grown on trees dur­ing the shogu­nate. This is a samu­rai movie that def­i­nite­ly grows on you. Track it down if you like samu­rai flicks and haven’t seen this one.


Criterion Essay by Geoffrey O’Brien
• A teas­er for the film. I apol­o­gize for the clas­sic rock ac­com­pa­ni­ment to this, but at least there are a few clips of the cli­mac­tic wig out.
• Bad as the fight scenes were, they are Oscar-win­ning per­for­mances com­pared to this. [I have since learned that the bad guy in this film is Akron’s own Don Niam.]

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