“The sword is the soul. Evil mind, evil sword.” Those words, uttered by a foursquare and honorable fencing teacher in late 19th-century Japan, are at the core of The Sword of Doom, a 1965 samurai epic that stands out as much for its relentlessly downbeat tone as its beautifully composed dueling scenes.
The sword and soul belong to Ryunosuke Tsukue, a blank-eyed murderer who starts the film with the casual butchery of a defenseless pilgrim and goes on to dispatch at least a dozen more victims before a climactic bloodbath in which he cuts down what seems like a hundred frenzied opponents.
Though it is far from a satisfying film — there are long stretches of near tedium, and a cat’s cradle of unresolved subplots left dangling by the abrupt ending — The Sword of Doom has moments of greatness. In particular it has a fascinating lead performance by Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays Ryunosuke as a man who seems hollowed out by motiveless evil, reinforced by Ryu Kuze’s subtle and intriguing swordfight choreography.
If the first requirement of a great swordfight film is that its action sequences reveal character and advance plot, The Sword of Doom meets that requirement in a most intriguing way. Ryunosuke’s deceptively passive-looking technique is as gripping to watch as Archie Cunningham’s sadistic flash in Rob Roy. Instead of putting on a show of bellowing aggression, Ryunosuke lowers his blade and seems to have his mind on other things, drawing out his opponent and inviting an attack that he answers with blinding speed. It’s a technique that spooks the other swordsmen, who call it the “silent stance,” and even Ryunosuke’s dying father denounces him as a cruel and deceitful man. When Toranosuke Shimada (Toshiro Mifune), the only swordsman who seems capable of matching it, declines to fight Ryunosuke, it seems less a matter of fear than distaste — he almost seems to think contact with Ryunosuke will taint him, even if he wins.
One of the happiest surprises of watching Sword of Doom was the realization that I’ve been admiring Ryu Kuze’s dueling choreography for years without connecting him to particular films. He mapped out the swordplay in two of Akira Kurosawa’s most celebrated films, Yojimbo and its sequel Sanjuro, and he played a thug in Kurosawa’s Red Beard. He also choreographed the duels in Chushingura, Hiroshi Inagaki’s epic retelling of the story of the 47 loyal ronin, and ended his career with The Challenge, an above-average action flick released in 1982. That film climaxes with a close-quarter office duel between a master swordfighter and his hopelessly overmatched American opponent, who just barely wins the day through a combination of dirty fighting and blind luck. It’s a bruising, breathtakingly intense clash with interesting similarities to the finale of Sword of Doom, which erupts within the confines of a geisha house — triggered when Ryunosuke realizes that the woman sent to attend him is the granddaughter of the man he killed at the start of the film.
There is a strong sense of the supernatural running through The Sword of Doom, and at times Ryunosuke seems to be acting as the merciless hand of fate: his first attack comes in answer to an old man’s prayer for death, and his next comes during a kendo match in which his opponent (an enraged husband who has learned of his wife’s infidelity with Ryunosuke) makes an illegal attack. At times, Ryunosuke behaves honorably, taking in the widow of the slain husband (and enduring her complaints about their shaky finances), though he satisfies his taste for blood by joining a band of gangster samurai scheming to prevent the dissolution of the Tokugawa shogunate. This leads to one of the film’s greatest sequences, in which the massed samurai attack a kago they think is bearing a government reformer, only to find it is carrying Shimada, whose Olympian disgust proves almost as lethal as his sword. As Ryunosuke watches the carnage, there’s a brief shot in which his blade seems to trying to slip out of its scabbard by itself, which raises the question of whether the man or the sword is the true master. When Shimada, giving him a sidelong glance, utters the “Evil mind, evil sword” line, Ryunosuke reacts like a man who has been given a glimpse into his own soul — and found hell staring back at him.
The Sword of Doom was meant to launch a series of films, based on a meandering serialized novel that rambled on for decades in Japanese newspapers. Presumably, the roots of Ryunosuke’s cruelty would have been explored in greater detail, and a long-simmering revenge subplot would have come to a satisfactory conclusion. But I’m not sure further chapters would have been an improvement. Personally, I think the closing slaughterfest, and the freeze-frame that ends the movie, are the perfect conclusion: a man hollowed out by violence and casual savagery, locked in a private torment that may never be broken.