The Sword of Doom (1966)
Directed by Kihachi Okamoto

The Sword of Doom
Daibosatsu toge
Starring Tatsuya Nakadai (Ryunosuke Tsukue), Yuzo Kayama (Hyoma), Michiyo Aratama (Hama), Toshiro Mifune (Shimada), Ichiro Nakaya (Bunnojo), Yoko Naito (Omatsu), Kamatari Fujiwara (Omatsu's grandfather), Kei Sato (Serizawa)
Screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto
Music by Masaru Sato

Toho Company, 120 minutes
B&W, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Criterion

Kihachi Okamoto's best-known film in the Western world and most likely his darkest work, The Sword of Doom is actually an incomplete fragment of a story. It's an adaptation of the first part of Kaizan Nakazato's massive serialized novel Daibosatsu toge, also known as The Great Bodhisattva Pass, which formerly held the title of longest work of Japanese fiction. Many other multi-part film versions of the story have been produced, and apparently there were plans for Okamoto to make a trilogy, but that never worked out. Nevertheless, the vicious and nihilistic nature of the story somehow makes an unfinished rendering of the story seem appropriate.

The Sword of Doom features a villain as its protagonist, a psychotically unhinged killer named Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai). He's sort of the Anakin Skywalker version of Musashi Miyamoto, a prodigiously strong and talented warrior who permits the evil capacity of the sword to consume him and destroy his humanity. In the iconic opening scene, Ryunosuke encounters an elderly Buddhist pilgrim crossing the Daibosatsu mountain pass with his granddaughter. Without provocation, Ryunosuke cuts down the defenseless old man as if simply to prove how cold and heartless he is.

Ryunosuke serves as the young master at his father's fencing school. His ailing father urges Ryunosuke to purposely lose a scheduled match against a lesser swordsman named Bunnojo Utsuki, because a defeat would be disastrous for the Utsuki family. Bunnojo's wife Hama makes a similar plea to Ryunosuke while pretending to be Bunnojo's sister. Ryunosuke replies that a swordsman guards his skill and his honor like a woman guards her chastity. He asks Hama if she would willingly surrender her virtue for a moral cause, and she ends up giving her body to Ryunosuke in exchange for his promise to show mercy. To no suprise, Ryunosuke ends up killing Bunnojo in their duel anyway. Rather than cursing Ryunosuke for his duplicity, Hama latches onto her husband's murderer and becomes his common-law wife in a deeply dysfunctional relationship.

Ryunosuke goes on to find steady employment as an assassin for the Shinsengumi, a paramilitary group dedicated to opposing the Emperor and defending the Tokugawa shogunate during its final dying years (and the subject of many other jidai-geki films). Operating under the alias of Ryutaro Yoshida, Ryunosuke seems to have zero interest in the political objectives of the group -- he's only involved for the sake of the killing.

In between assassinations, Ryunosuke seeks to enhance his swordsmanship by visiting the dojo of the esteemed master Shimada (Toshiro Mifune). There Ryunosuke unwittingly finds himself in a sparring match against Hyoma Utsuki, the brother of Bunnojo, who is Shimada's assistant instructor. Hyoma actually came to Shimada at the behest of Ryunosuke's dying father, who implored Hyoma to kill his son. He believed only Shimada could teach him the skills he would need to defeat Ryunosuke.

It's not until long after this first meeting that Ryunosuke and Hyoma each finally realize who the other is, and they're both anxious to come together again in a battle to the death. But after a Shinsengumi assassination plot goes wrong and Ryunosuke witnesses the formidable skills of Master Shimada in action, the formerly unflappable psycho-killer feels his confidence shaken. Ryunosuke vows that he will someday kill Shimada. But before he can meet either Hyoma or Shimada in a formal duel, the Shinsengumi members decide that Ryunosuke has become a dangerous liability who needs to be eliminated.

A dark realization while confined a supposedly haunted room at an inn causes Ryunosuke to snap. He hallucinates the shadowy apparitions of the victims of his sword, and he madly slashes up the room in an effort to kill them again. His visions blend into reality when a throng of Shinsengumi members come crashing in to ambush him, and Ryunosuke goes on a kill-crazy rampage of interminable carnage while the inn goes up in flames around them. And then the movie ends.

The anticipated showdowns with Hyoma and Shimada remain unfulfilled, and various other plot threads are likewise left dangling. You can find out what happens next in the other film adaptations of the story, like the ones I've seen by Tomu Uchida and Kenji Misumi. But even though it's incomplete, I think Okamoto's version is the best. The chilling performance by Tatsuya Nakadai and the pitch-black tone of the violence are both beyond compare. It seems fitting to end the story with the completion of Ryunosuke's descent into madness, and reverting back to rational terms for any resolution of his previous intentions seems somehow beside the point.

And what's more, the original Daibosatsu toge novel was left unfinished upon the author's death, and it reportedly never got around to having a climactic confrontation between Ryunosuke and Hyoma as was devised in the other movies. So from that standpoint, The Sword of Doom is ironically the most faithful to the source material.

The Jidai-Geki Knights