Saturday, December 1, 2012

El Professore Movie Reviews: The Sword of Doom

Director: Kihachi Okamoto
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Michiyo Aratama, Yuzo Kayama
* * * *
"Boddhisattva Pass" is reportedly the longest novel ever written in any language. It was filmed as a trilogy in 1960 called "Satan's Sword", directed by the great Kenji Misumi (one of the most ubiquitous of all Japanese filmmakers) and starred the extremely popular Raizo Ichikawa (whom most here in the States know best for the 'Son of the Black Mass' aka 'Sleepy Eyes of Death' series). It was very popular in Japan and is regarded there as a near perfect interpretation. So much so that when director Kihachi Okamoto attempted a rival two parter several years later, it was halted after just one film. That's really a shame as that film, 'Sword of Doom' is now regarded (and rightfully so) as a mad masterpiece and one of the most stunning samurai films ever made.

Full review after the jump.

'The Sword of Doom' follows the exploits of sociopath samurai, Ryunosuke Tsukue (an absolutely amazing perf from the always great Tatsuya Nakadai) who as cinematic protagonists go, makes Terry Surugy and Travis Bickle appear as white nights by comparison. He is the ultimate amoral character who travels the land killing people seemingly just because he can. To stare into this samurai's eyes is to see not good, not evil, but complete and utter emptiness. It is the look of quiet insanity. Right from the opening scene where Ryunosuke slays an old man (who quietly wishes for death so he wouldn't be a burden on his grandaughter, never realizing his wish would come true quite like this), the audience realizes that they will be in for an off kilter experience. As he continues to carve his way through towns, he naturally becomes the target of various clans. Unfortunately, he is such a skilled swordsman, that none dare challenge him. His own wife becomes so distraught over hubby's heartless exploits that she attempts to murder him in his sleep... unsuccessfully. Ryunosuke's extreme confidence in his abilities is finally swayed when he witnesses a botched assassination attempt when the clan he joined attacks the wrong man, Kendo master, Shimada (the great Toshiro Mifune). Witnessing Shimada dispatching his allies, Ryunosuke withdraws both literally and figuratively into a state of silent panic.

Okamoto lenses his dark masterpiece in stark, yet expressive black and white. He weaves his tale in circular fashion, involving many major and minor characters, brilliantly involving all in his central story. The action setpieces are absolutely stunning with the final (unfinished) battle where Ryunosuke finally succombs to complete madness (he is unknowingly left alone with the grandaughter of the old man he murdered in the opening scene and begins to hear voices and see shadows of those he offed) is one of the most longest and most intense in the entire genre. The real triumph here though was the conceit of centering the story on the 'villain'. We are forced to follow his adventures while the would be hero/avengers are forced to appear as secondary characters (well drawn though they all were). It was a brilliant and utterly original strategy on Okamoto's part, one that seemingly helped launch the countless nihilistic antiheroes in both the samurai and Italion Western genres.

Again, it really is too bad that Okamoto was not allowed to finish his epic. 'The Sword of Doom' ends in a freeze framed shot during the final battle; it's outcome undetermined and with many of it's subplots unresolved. Apparently Toho predicted (accurately) that it wouldn't fair well locally and pulled the plug on the intended sequel just as the first part was being completed (!). Despite this, it proved to be a huge late '60s hit in U.S. arthouses as well as on New York's infamous 42 Street Grindhouse theater. It found it's audience, just not the one initially intended.

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