There’s something fascinating about understanding and delving into genres and franchises. These massive collections of films often represent a period of box-office dominance, or one studio’s most successful product. They are often the result of one or two initial commercial and critical successes. The reason really engrossing yourself in these series can be necessary is simple – with the more fringe genres (not Oscar bait or action movies or something general like that) you almost have to judge apples to apples. They all can be judged as actual movies, and the understanding of the result of this interrogation should be kept in mind, but most of them will fail when held up against the criteria one would typically use to judge films. The thing is most of these weird fringe genres will have something to offer on some level, and certainly loads to learn and enjoy. This is why I’m doing my watch-through of every Gamera movie, and why I’m planning on watching a whole lot more kaiju films (probably starting with the Godzilla films). It’s why I watched the entire Planet of the Apes franchise. It’s also why I watched Sword of Doom and started to gather an assortment of samurai films, including the Criterion Zatoichi box-set, which is in the mail as I write this (and arrived before I posted it).
I’m getting into samurai films, so I want to watch a decent amount and variety. It’s foreign enough to me to necessitate a thorough understanding of the genre. Of course how many movies I actually have to watch to start to hone in on the tropes is likely to only be a few. It’s pretty easy to see the framework to these sorts of things after a few viewings. It took me exactly two Giallo films to feel I understood the basics of that genre, about three Planet of the Apes movies, and if I hadn’t already known how kaiju films work it would’ve taken about two Gamera films to start to see those simple patterns. Understanding the fill-in-the-blank framework is different from truly being able to admire and examine the differences between the films though – that can take a lot more. It’s something I really like to do; it just feels preferable to properly understand it as opposed to just having a cursory understanding. Maybe I’m just insufferably nerdy or suffering from movie-related OCD. Those seem like likely reasons too.
Kihachi Okamoto’s Sword of Doom came out in 1966 and stars two samurai film fixtures –Tatsuya Nakadai and Toshirô Mifune. Tatsuya Nakadai plays the main character, Ryunosuke Tsukue while Mifune basically has a really badass cameo. Both actors, for anyone who doesn’t recognize the names, were in Yojimbo. Toshirô Mifune is deservedly well known however. Tatsuya Nakadai was also in Ran (which I haven’t seen), Harakiri (which I love), Kill! (which is in a Criterion set I want), Samurai Rebellion (which I’m planning on watching soon), and High and Low (which I love). That’s not actually all the notable films either. Hell he was even an extra in Seven Samurai! (Basically the genre’s granddaddy, which I still need to see.) So a pretty classic samurai actor.
A pretty classic formula too. Most samurai films tend to build slowly to a few short fights. The sword fights are important, and better fights totally make for a more satisfying experience. They’re all about releasing tension and culminating plot threads. They are both important to the plot and to viewer satisfaction. It makes sense that sword fights as technically good as Sword of Doom’s would garner a reputation, especially when the film is well crafted on top of that. The problem is they’re only viscerally satisfying; they aren’t super satisfying from a character standpoint. Most of them are just hosts of extras getting skewered, there are almost no stakes to that. Not ever knowing the opponents becomes bland and boring. Imagine if the climactic fight of Empire Strikes Back was with Stormtroopers instead of Darth Vader. That’s no good.
In Sword of Doom Tatsuya Nakadai basically plays the villain, but is presented as the protagonist. Which seems fun, if not intensely unique. What makes Sword of Doom slightly more interesting is that it really backgrounds the character who would traditionally be considered more heroic. He barely has any screen time. Instead the film mires us in the villain’s character, showing us his side of the proceedings. Where Sword of Doom starts to defy expectations is structurally. It doesn’t even remotely follow the sort of structure you’d expect it too. Basically it seems like it should be the set up for a typical villain vs. hero structure, with the two being opponents, maybe a couple of times, and generally having stakes in what the other one does. I cannot decide if this is to the movie’s benefit or not.
No one really talks about anything in the movie besides the mania and the sword fights, both of which I will get to later. If you Google the movie you’ll find lists compiling the best samurai sword fights ever, first and foremost. Which is not to say the rest of the movie is bad, quite the opposite, it’s excellent, but that fact is probably worth keeping in mind.
The whole movie is very well shot. Lots of foregrounded heads in wide-angle shots and well timed Dutch angles. High contrast black and white. It’s sharp, vicious stuff, delightfully stylized. There’s just an incredible craft on display. It makes the major faults so much more frustrating. It’s well edited, composed, and brilliantly performed. Basically everything you could hope for. Then it doesn’t click. Everything set up on every level.
So the movie starts with a twenty minute prologue. It’s genuinely important, because the rest of the movie is all about the fallout from these first twenty minutes, but it still feels like a bit of a misstep. I was convinced the movie was setting it up as the first of three parts, each culminating in a fight and expanding the story. The pieces, from a script mechanics point-of-view, were definitely all there to create this kind of structure. It would’ve actually heightened some of the character arcs, including the secondary plot line about a girl’s descent into an indecent lifestyle that would’ve been more impactful if she actually started living an indecent life before the movie ended.
The movie opens with a young girl and her grandfather making a pilgrimage across a steep mountaintop. Ryunosuke appears, clad in black, and kills the girl’s grandfather. It’s a casual, pointless murder. It’s not the only murder he commits on the mountaintop either. Ryunosuke has a duel coming up and, when he returns to the village from whence he came, he is accosted by the wife of the man he’s to duel. The wife clumsily claims to be the man’s sister, but Ryunosuke sees through it. She begs him to lose the fight, saying that she’ll do anything to ensure it because her husband won’t be able to stomach the defeat. It’ll hurt his standing as a teacher. Ryunosuke compares giving up a fight to giving up one’s chastity. The two meet again in a mill, and after a comically blunt visual metaphor (a wooden rod banging repeatedly into a hole) the movie cuts to the approaching fight. In an ironic twist of fate, the woman’s husband casts her aside before the fight – someone reported that she had spent many hours in a mill with Ryunosuke. So she loses the man she loves because she tried to save him. Ryunosuke also loses any reason to throw the match.
Of course Ryunosuke’s combatant is furious and tries to kill Ryunosuke, who fells him in one clean blow. Afterwards, Ryunosuke’s victim’s wife warns him of a gang of men planning to take vengeance on him. The group notably excludes his victim’s brother. The gang attacks Ryunosuke, who slays each one with a solitary and precisely timed and placed cut. A little digression, because this knowledge had to come in handy at some point, what Ryunosuke is doing is called bunkai. This technique is represented by this Zen phrase: “seizing the enemy’s spear and using it as a weapon to kill him.” The idea is that you let your enemy’s attack get close enough to kill you, within your circle of striking distance (normally you would defend against this), and you attack, using the fact that you are now within his circle to your advantage. Ryunosuke also often starts his fight using a Happo-Biraki stance, which is a really specific thing that also denotes an incredible skill. You have to be the superior swordsmen to use these techniques, and Ryunosuke is so skilled in Sword of Doom that he exploits single openings to instantly kill whoever attacks him. It’s a great scene. Dramatically shot and striking, it’s one of the chief reasons the film is renowned for its fight scenes. This marks the end of the prologue.
The rest of the movie takes place two years after these initial events. Ryunosuke has married the woman whose husband he killed and they have a child. The girl whose grandfather he killed now lives in a terrible household (and is eventually sold into prostitution). There’s also a subplot where Ryunosuke gets involved with a revolutionary group (a mass of whom get slaughtered when they accidentally attack Toshirô Mifune in another pretty badass fight). The movie sets up a lot. For one thing the “hero” and Ryunosuke have a brief fight and afterwards the “hero” starts perfecting the one move he believes can defeat Ryunosuke. The move, by the way, is a Morote-suki – a double-handed thrust forward with a sword. There are many dramatic shots of this move being practiced.
But this thread-line of the “hero” is what ultimately disappoints. It NEVER GOES ANYWHERE. The “hero” never meets Ryunosuke again. Ryunosuke basically goes insane and gets himself killed in a spectacular fight, with what again amounts to a bunch of unimportant extras. It’s narratively unsatisfying. But the thing is, it is so deliberately, nihilistically so that it’s hard to fault the movie for that. Ryunosuke is evil and his mind unhinges. There’s a certain punch to that. I feel like that thread could’ve culminated along with an actually satisfying final showdown… There are so many threads that feel left hanging, not severed. There’s a sloppiness to the structure, and it feels like there are just too many missteps that lead to the movie landing too softly.
My fix would be simple. Not that I’m one to backseat direct. Or rather I totally am, I just know I should feel shame. My pitch would be to create a harsh three act (but not in that swooping graph way) structure. The prologue would be the first act, culminating in the awesome fight. The second act would end with the attack on Mifune, but instead of Ryunosuke being too afraid to fight Mifune he would attack him, but then use some sort of dirty trick to win, because obviously Mifune is the superior swordsmen. This cheap win would be one of the many things that haunt Ryunosuke. After that it makes sense to start the third, which chronologically could be about a year apart. Then you could show that girl having fully fallen into hard times. You could start Ryunosuke’s mental train wreck, including the scene where he kills his wife. Then you could have Ryunosuke follow the “hero” on his way to the brothel to liberate the girl whose life Ryunosuke ruined. Ryunosuke could start to go insane in the same way and start to fight the guards in the brothel, but he would end up killing the “hero’s” girl. Of course then we could actually get the final showdown between Ryunosuke and the “hero”. Or you could actually show the “hero” getting assassinated and have Ryunosuke kill the girl in the brothel. Conclude the fucker.