Genre: Evil Mind, Evil Sword Samurai Tale
Director: Okamoto Kihachi (1966)
review in one breath
The principles of samurai bushido are in sharp focus here, demonstrating the zen-like connection between the swordsman's mind and his use of the blade. Sword of Doom examines an unruly samurai with ruthless sword skills whose ego and moral deficiencies lead him down a path of ultimate destruction. This is truly a classic samurai film in that it is wholly about the bushido mentality and how one's moral character and discipline ultimately decide one's fate.
This is a well-known, widely-praised film of which plenty has undoubtedly already been written. In great part, its real historical value in terms of its place in Japanese film was likely determined in retrospect based on the unrivaled fame and inter-connected trajectories the two lead stars would develop in subsequent years.
The lead role is played by Tatsuya Nakadai and the main supporting role by Toshiro Mifune. Mifune and Nakadai had appeared in several other films prior to this one, most prominently in those directed by Akira Kurosawa. As early as Kurosawa's 1957 Seven Samurai the two had worked together though Nakadai was clearly on a lower rung on the ladder with Mifune playing one of "The Seven" and Nakadai's part being unmentioned in the credits. But Nakadai obviously caught Kurosawa's eye and reappears in several of Mifune's early seminal films including lead roles in Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), and High and Low (1963).
The career and popularity of Toshiro Mifune was without doubt launched by his appeal to director Kurosawa and his appearance in several key films in early Japanese cinema. However, despite their mutually beneficial relationship, Mifune and Kurosawa had a falling out shortly after the 1965 release of Red Beard [Akahige]. (Ironically enough, their dispute involved Mifune's beard.) Following this rift, Kurosawa turned to Nakadai for the lead roles in several of his films. Thus purveyors of Japanese film might recognize a more elderly Nakadai in the lead role of both Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985).
But Kurosawa is not the director here. Kihachi Okamoto [ å²¡æœ¬å–œå…« ] is. In terms of name recognition, several memorable films, and a modicum of influence within the streams of Japanese film, director Okamoto is well established amongst those who know. Unfortunately (?) his films are generally of the type and content which fall beyond SaruDama's scope of interest. Exceptions (to the SaruDama filter) would undoubtedly include his remarkable Samurai Assassin (1965) and Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970), one of only two films starring both Toshiro Mifune and (Zatoichi favorite) Shintaro Katsu.
The film is based on the epic novel Daibosastu Toge by author Kaizan Nakazato [1885-1944]. Nakazoto's complex storyline encompassed 41 volumes written over a nearly 30 year period. Thirteen films have been based on this work, including three separate trilogies. The first entire trilogy appeared in 1953 by director Watanabe Kunio, the second in 1957-59 by director Uchida Tomu, and the third in 1960-61 by director Misumi Kenji. Needless to say, it was apparent to all these directors that any attempt at portraying author Nakazoto's world would likely require more than a single film.
The last of the thirteen films is Okamoto's and the one we are reviewing here. Audiences of this film often note how characters and sub-plots which are initially introduced in the film are suddenly discarded and unresolved by film's end. Given the vastness of the storyline from which the film originates and the fact that Okamoto attempts to tell albeit a sliver of the story in a single film, it should come as no big surprise that complexity is cast aside to fit this tale into its 120 minute allotment. But what the audience is left with, despite its drastic reduction, will certainly not disappoint. Fans of sword play, bushido principles and spooky moral lessons will definitely find something here to their liking.
The title of Nakazoto's novel and this film can be literally translated as Great Bodhisattva Pass. The "Great Bodhisattva" refers to Amida Butsu (Amitabha Buddha), the predominant figure in Japanese Mahayana Buddhism. Reverence for the Buddha resulted in several regions naming particularly auspicious or magnificent locations after Him. The specific reference here is to a high mountainous pass which Buddhist pilgrims must trod as they make their circuit from one holy shrine to the next. This "Great Bodhisattva" pass is the setting for the opening scene of the film where we encounter a grandfather and granddaughter as they make their way along their pilgrimage. It is precisely in this scene, at a small stone shrine along this pass that we are introduced to the film's main character as he mercilessly kills the elderly pilgrim as he prays.
The title's specific reference to Buddha and the narrative's use of religious pilgrims and pilgrimages truly sets the moral tone and trajectory of this film. Audiences (and readers) commence at the beautiful path through mountain passes, filled with religious shrines and looking down upon white clouds over green forests and valleys below. In other words we start at the Great Bodhisattva. And then the dark main character is introduced and both the narrative and moral depictions descend deeply from there. This moral aspect is indispensable in understanding and appreciating the underlying message.
And the message is spelled out even in this film's brief treatment of the content. As the character Shimada (Toshiro Mifune) puts it:
- The sword is the Soul.
Study the Soul to know the sword.
Evil mind, evil sword.
Ryunosuke Tsukue was literally raised with a sword in his hand. His father is the prestigious and ailing Sword Master of a prominent fencing school. But unlike the father and the broader underpinning of samurai tradition, Ryunosuke has from youth gone his own way philosophically, morally and even as regards his sword technique. He is the rigorous wild weed in an otherwise placid Zen garden. His own unique and formidable style of fighting called the "Silent Stance" has become both infamous and feared. And in the film's opening moments we are privy to his flippancy in using them as he cuts down an elderly pilgrim who is merely praying at a mountaintop shrine.
This moral skew seeps into every crevice of Ryunosuke's inner and outer worlds, soon leading him down a path of his own making and destruction. Along the way, however, he encounters devious women, noble samurai, political insurgents, and the ghosts of the souls he has murdered.
This is a samurai tale with a whole lotta background. It also packs a formidable moral punch if you think about it. This is definitely worth seeing and is easily accessible.
Fans of true Japanese kendo and swordsmanship will enjoy this film due to its rigorous attention and devotion to the art. Fans of dark, moody, and formidable anti-heroes can drool over the character Ryunosuke. And those interested in the physical manifestations of a haunted conscience won't be disappointed.
Version reviewed: Region 1 DVD (with subtitles)
|Exemplar bushido film starring both Mifune and Nakadai.||Death and de-limbing by sword abound.||TOE ON TOE ACTION!!||This is a classic samurai film which plumbs the depths of human morality (or lack thereof!). The relation and future trajectories of both Mifune and Nakadai make this all the more interesting.|