The latest samurai flick I was able to watch, The Sword of Doom, was unfortunately a bit of a disappointment. I’d read positive reviews of it by fans of the genre, so I picked it up during my last Barnes and Noble Criterion Collection sale binge.
There were some definite bright spots to the otherwise dark, unsatisfying watch, though.
First off I should note that The Sword of Doom is based on a novel of the same name. It’s also, I believe, the third take on said novel. There was a movie adaptation in 1957, then the Satan’s Sword trilogy in 1960, and finally The Sword of Doom in 1966. The Sword of Doom only covers the first part of the story, and it seems a sequel was planned but never made.
Anyway, the story focuses on a twisted swordsman played by Tatsuya Nakadai – a name you might not know, but whose face you’ll surely recognize if you’ve seen enough samurai films.
The movie starts off by letting you know what you’re getting into – a girl and her grandfather are traveling as pilgrims along a mountain path. The girl goes to fetch some water, and while she’s doing so her grandpa prays at a little shrine. Before long he’s interrupted by Ryunosuke (Nakadai), out for a little stroll. He’s overheard the old man praying for death so that his granddaughter can be free of obligation to him. Ryunosuke unfeelingly obliges, cutting down the old man.
Throughout the rest of the film we follow Ryunosuke in his cruel, violent exploits. We also get a look at some other characters, mostly victims whose lives he’s affected for the worse.
Toshiro Mifune makes an appearance as a sword master, and thankfully we get a nice action scene out of him.
There’s also another cool character – a seemingly mild-mannered merchant who in protecting his foster daughter shows that appearances can be deceiving. The dude is actually a rogue ninja-type who knows how to handle himself (and others).
Camerawork and acting are noteworthy; the use of shadow is especially noticeable. The plot does get bogged down from the amount of minor characters bouncing around; I sometimes had trouble keeping track of all the names.
The most disappointing part of the story is that it’s all one big Chekhov’s Gun fakeout. The brother of one of Ryunosuke’s victims, seeking justice for his kin and begged by Ryunosuke’s own father, sets out to train under Mifune’s character in preparation for an ultimate confrontation with the evil samurai.
In the end, though, nothing comes of this. The film ends on a cliffhanger, with Ryunosuke descending into a berserk madness fueled by the weight of his sins. Even were there to have been a sequel, however, the Internet informs me that the novel itself never allowed for a battle between Ryunosuke and his heroic antagonist.
Disappointing, and yet I’ve come to expect these kinds of endings from Japanese films. Still, the acting is good, the action is good, and there are some interesting characters. Worth a watch, but there are plenty of other samurai movies I’d recommend above this one.