As Kihachi Okamoto's film depicts, the end of a lengthy period of power leaves room for nihilistic violence to consume the power vacuum that's left in place.
The Sword of DoomDirector: Kihachi Okamoto
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Yuzo Kayama, Michiyo Aramata, Toshiro Mifune
US DVD Release Date: 2015-01-06
"Life is the best game in town / and death goes to the winner."
-- Harvey Milk, "Death Goes to the Winner"
An old man and his granddaughter walk through the mountains. The man, a Buddhist pilgrim, takes a brief moment to pray while his granddaughter goes off to get water. A mysterious man in a hat that shrouds his whole head comes behind the old man. He slays the old man with one swift movement of his sword. He walks away.
Instinctively, it's hard to know how to respond to The Sword of Doom. Its protagonist, whose stone-facedness makes his occasional smile more terrifying than cheery, appears to be a man who kills without motive or moral restriction. The scene described in the previous paragraph shows Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai) for what he really is: a man who has become the violence he lives his life by. Although he has various personal associations, including fellow swordsman that he practices with and, later, a wife and a child, there is only ever one true motivation of his that is fully developed: to find flesh into which he can sink his blade.
On the surface it may seem that The Sword of Doom, directed by Kihachi Okamoto, is a mere exercise in murderous style. The primary scenes in the film are elaborate fights, namely the concluding battle and a brilliantly choreographed fight where Tsukue slays his way out of a trap of assassins in the woods. The only character given any substantive dimension is Tsukue, and even he can effectively be described in terms of one simple obsession: death. The influence of this aestheticization of violence is no doubt obvious to the cinephile in the present day; anyone who enjoys the films of Quentin Tarantino or John Woo will no doubt relish in the extravagant violence so expertly staged by Okamoto. In his essay for the new Criterion Blu-ray of the film, Geoffrey O'Brien also includes Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone as inheritors of this movie.
O'Brien's essay, the best of the sparse bonus features included on the Blu-ray, also illustrates what makes the violence of The Sword of Doom so compelling, even though one could make a plausible case that its achievements are flashy but ultimately superficial. He argues,
The film's surface, one might say, is its depth: if indeed an evil soul is an evil sword, then form and gesture are a graph of profound undercurrents. The unrelenting visual inventiveness of The Sword of Doom, culminating in the final massacre, with its thousand and one variations on the theme of killing with a sword, is not a matter of flashy illustration but the essence of what the film is about. Gesture here takes on a life of its own; the human killing machine, blinded and stumbling in his own blood, has become something of a force of nature, a destructive essence.
This analysis is distinctly more fleshed out than the one provided by Bruce Eder in his essay for the original Criterion edition of the picture. "If (The Sword of Doom) seems superficial," he claims, "It’s supposed to be -- Okamoto is less interested in philosophy than in entertainment." Although he claims that the film is "the finest movie from a filmmaker who deserves to be more widely known in America", in his view it "doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a study of madness and violence at the extreme edges."
But what are those edges, exactly? Eder is right to imply that Okamoto doesn't give the viewer a whole lot as far as complex motivation is concerned; so far as can be inferred, Tsukue is his sword, is the violence that it exacts. O'Brien's analysis is helpful in drawing out the implications of this violence to a further degree: whereas violence is often associated with a particular motive -- revenge (one of the few motives in The Sword of Doom) or political aims, for instance -- what makes Tsukue so frightening is that his blade simply does what it does: kill. Even when he is defending himself when his wife (Michiyo Aratama) tries to kill him, or when he attempts to rise to the challenge posed by a rival master swordsman, Shimada Toranosuke (Toshiro Mifune), ultimately the unquenchable fire of evil proves his sole driving force. As such, O'Brien doesn't go far enough when he writes that with Tsukue "gesture… takes on a life of its own." Tsukue is his gestures: his slices and fell swoops are indistinguishable from himself.
Although The Sword of Doom's script lacks in character development and plot enrichment, there are historical contexts hinted throughout that do help illustrate what kind of society could feasibly create a force so unimpeachably evil as Tsukue. The story is set in the curtain call of Japan's shogunate era, a lengthy period of rule spanning 1192 to 1867. Only slight allusions are made to the shogun throughout the film, but enough is said to establish Tsukue's role in the political order, particularly after he flees his home base at the beginning of the film following killing a competitor in a duel. Upon changing locales, he joins the Shinsengumi, a collective of rōnin (samurai with no affiliations with a master) that support the Tokugawa shogunate, the final period of shogun rule.
What Okamoto likely knew when making The Sword of Doom is that when Tokugawa came to a close, various warring factions attempted to fill the power vacuum that existed between that time and the development of a more internationally-minded empire, many of whom were swordsmen of a skill level comparable to Tsukue. While Okamoto's film and its singularly obsessive lead figure are never overtly political, it's hard to escape the context in which Tsukue's violence flurries about. Just as Tsukue is his sword, his killing is emblematic of the violence that occurs when major shifts in political power occur in societies. Transitory political times are often volatile; see the various power claims made by the nations involved in the Arab Spring for an excellent contemporary example. The deep malevolence of Tsukue is tar-pit black to a degree that it's unlikely that his rage can be chalked up to the politics of his time, but his various slayings do make a great deal of sense in the jarring liminal space between the end of shogunate rule and the later Empire of Japan.
The title of a recently released album by the English black metal band, A Forest of Stars, is of help here: Beware the Sword You Cannot See. Tsukue spends all of The Sword of Doom keeping his vacant gaze out for the blades of swordsmen that would see him dead, but in fact his greatest threat is one that he could not see, whether he was looking for it or not. In his time, the sword is coming down in a much larger political sense, one that remains a major source of historical inquiry to this day.
To call Tsukue a political warrior would be a stretch; although as a small player he fits within the larger scheme of historical transition, what makes him so terrifying and entrancing as an antagonist is the void at the core of his merciless swordsmanship. This void, horrifying and elusive, is what keeps people coming back to The Sword of Doom, and no doubt why Criterion saw fit to reissue the film for a second time in a sharp Blu-ray package. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but violence thrives within it.