Friday, 18 September 2015

Sword of Doom (1966)

Sword of Doom (Dai-bosatsu tôge) is a frustrating but fascinating and unusual samurai movie directed by Kihachi Okamoto for Toho studio in 1966.

The movie’s story begins in 1860. Tatsuya Nakadai plays the hero (or rather anti-hero) Ryunosuke Tsukue. Ryunosuke is a rōnin (lordless samurai) and in the movie’s opening scene we see him kill an old man for no reason whatsoever. This certainly sets the nihilistic tone of the rest of the movie.

Ryunosuke is scheduled to fight a match against Bunnojo Utsuki. It is a tournament match with wooden swords but there is a lot at stake. If Bunnojo loses the match he will also lose his position as an instructor and his family will be ruined financially and disgraced. Bunnojo’s wife Ohama (Michiyo Aratama) goes to Ryunosuke to beg him to throw the match. Ryunosuke tells her that to ask a samurai to do that would be like asking a woman to give up her chastity. Would she agree to do such a thing? He answers the question for her by taking her chastity anyway. Whether he rapes her or whether she seduces him in order to induce him to throw the match is not entirely clear and the ambiguity is important since Ryunosuke obviously believes the latter was the case, and this belief makes the bitter and cynical Ryunosuke even more bitter and cynical. Of course Ryunosuke’s view of the matter may be nothing more than self-justification.

Although the match is supposed to be a bloodless tournament match it is obvious that both men will be approaching it as a genuine duel (since Bunnojo has found out about his wife and Ryunosuke). The match proves to be anything but bloodless - in fact it becomes lethal. This is followed by a memorable and superbly shot scene in which Ryunosuke is ambushed by other members of the sword-fighting school.

We then jump forward a couple of years. Ryunosuke and Ohama are now living together and they have a child. Ryunosuke ekes out a meagre living as a professional assassin. It’s clearly not exactly a blissful marriage and Ryunosuke has started to drink heavily. Meanwhile Bunnojo’s brother Hyoma Utsuki (Yûzô Kayama) is plotting revenge against Ryunosuke. 

There is another jump forward in time and Ryunosuke has joined the Shinsengumi or Shinsen Group, who practice assassination on a grand scale. 

The past keeps catching up with Ryunosuke. His story becomes intertwined not only with that of Hyoma Utsuki but also that of Omatsu (Yôko Naitô), the grand-daughter of the old man he murdered at the beginning of the film. The story is complicated by some very intricate plots and counter-plots between rival bands of rōnin and a great deal of mayhem ensues. A very great deal of mayhem. The movie builds towards what we assume is going to be a climax but it isn’t the real climax - that will come after after even more butchery and even more intricate conspiracies are unfolded.

There are two major problems that are likely to get in the way of appreciating this film. The first problem is that the story uses actual historical events as a background and viewers with little knowledge of the history of the last years of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 1860s may find that things get a bit bewildering, since the movie assumes that the viewer will know something of that period. This was a period of political turmoil between the forces supporting the continuation of the shogunate and those seeking to re-establish the authority of the Emperor (which finally happened with the Meiji Restoration in 1868). To comprehend the film you do at least need to know that the group Ryunosuke joins was a kind of paramilitary group with some degree of official backing rather than just a group of bandits.

The second problem is that the narrative is, to say the least, somewhat incoherent. The film was based on Boddhisatva toge, a very long novel by Kaizan Nakazato. The author worked on the novel for thirty years and it got longer and longer but was never completed. The movie had been intended to be the first part of a trilogy. The remaining films of the trilogy were never made so what we have is the first third of an unfinished trilogy based on an unfinished novel. This undoubtedly accounts for most of the narrative incoherence. Characters are introduced who are obviously intended to be important but their stories are left hanging. There are sub-plots that are puzzling because they don’t seem to go anywhere. Crucial events are foreshadowed but they don’t happen. Presumably all of these narrative problems would have been resolved had the trilogy been completed.

Fortunately the narrative isn’t really the most important thing in this movie. It has other things going for it - it is a magnificent exercise in style and it’s an intriguing character study of a memorable anti-hero.

Although even as a character study there are problems. Many of Ryunosuke’s actions are explicable. Some can even be justified, to a limited extent. That first murder though - of the old man - remains a mystery. This is a major problem. Ryunosuke is set up as a cold-blooded killer, a man who will kill for no reason, but the film offers no real explanation for this. Perhaps he is a psychopath but his later behaviour tends to undercut that theory. There is a vague suggestion that he has simply been seduced by his own skill with the sword - that he has come to enjoy killing for the sake of killing. But why? Perhaps he sees himself as an instrument of fate, bringing death randomly. Perhaps he is supposed to represent the oppressive nature of the shogunate but the movie makes no attempt to explore the political situation in any depth so that their seems untenable. Perhaps he represents the inherent violence of the samurai class, but again there’s little or nothing in the actual movie to support that idea either. Perhaps he simply reflects the times he lives in - a period of social turmoil and lawlessness.

While Ryunosuke does initially appear to be a psychopathic killer he later starts to crack up, apparently as a result of guilt (an emotion that psychopaths entirely lack). He is a man who has embraced violence and he finds that it is an uncomfortable bedfellow. In some ways the mystery of Ryunosuke’s motivations does make the movie quite interesting - even a man who thinks he can kill without being troubled by his conscience may find that it isn’t so easy after all.

The theory I’m inclined to go for is that the celebrated sequence in which Ryunosuke seems to be fighting the ghosts of his victims is not a symbol of his rebelling conscience but really is a supernatural manifestation. The ghosts of your victims really can come after you. In fact there are suggestions of this earlier in the film.

Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance as Ryunosuke is strangely mesmerising and disturbing. Michiyo Aratama as Ohama is equally impressive. Look out for the great Toshirô Mifune in a small but important role.

The black-and-white cinematography is wonderfully moody and atmospheric. The fight scenes are impressively staged and become progressively more graphic. There are no geysers of blood but the reality of violent death is conveyed quite forcefully.

The Region 4 DVD offers a good transfer but the lack of extras is disappointing - this is a movie that desperately requires a commentary track.

Sword of Doom, despite its frustrations, is a fascinating and stylish movie. Recommended.

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