Tatsuya Nakadai has one of the blankest, most impassive faces possible for an actor, and Sword of Doom is a showcase for him projecting the most chilling emptiness possible with that face. Most people confuse acting with emoting: they think of Jack Nicholson or Dennis Hopper throwing an on-screen tantrum. Then they see the films of Robert Bresson or Jean-Pierre Melville, or many of the newer Japanese directors (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Kore’eda), and see acting that has been dialed so far down that, paradoxically, nothing but pure emotion remains.
For the most part, Nakadai’s face is passive, his eyes large and unresponsive, showing all of the emotion of a mirror. Then, even more chillingly, he smiles. The smile is worse, because it is the rictus of an animal of prey. This is appropriate for a movie that is about a man who would at first glance appear to be nothing but a moral void. Then we look closer.
One of the things that makes Sword of Doom a great movie is that what we see, and the meaning of what we see, are highly deceptive. Most movies present us with a certain kind of behavior either as a model to emulate or avoid. Doom shows us a man and then asks: Is this an indiscriminate or amoral killer, or a man whose moral code does not allow him to coexist with most people, or something else entirely? It's left entirely to us to decide, and most people do not want do to that. They want to be told upfront what this man is, and to have to puzzle it out for themselves is intimidating.
Tatsuya Nakadai's blank expression is the one great recurring image in a movie
about a man who seems to be devoid of moral compunction.
Sword of Doom was justifiably called the best film by director Kihachi Okamoto, who also gave us the masterful Samurai Assassin (another movie about an apparently amoral character) and the spirited Red Lion. Nothing in his previous catalog of movies prepared people for the moral ambiguousness and out-and-out nihilism of Doom, and I suspect that at least part of that is attributable to the presence of screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, who co-wrote of Akira Kurosawa’s finer movies about morally ambiguous situations (The Bad Sleep Well, The Seven Samurai), as well as Seppuku, one of the darkest and most unsparing criticisms of samurai honor ever made. It, along with Doom, were two of the first samurai movies I watched after seeing Seven Samurai and Ran, and they both had an indelible impact on me; they made me aware that the best films in the genre were not about swordplay but the one original subject of all drama, human nature.
Nakadai's character, Ryunosuke, is a samurai from a well-regarded family with a thriving school of fencing, but breeding in this case seems to be irrelevant. He kills unblinkingly, and seems to savors each death — but there is a kind of mad logic to his behavior. His victims don’t live up to his standards, and threaten his existence; ergo, he destroys them. Moral as he may be in the abstract, his moral code hardly makes him a better man — in fact, it makes him a demon. Not because he is upholding a stronger set of moral principles than the people around him, but because he sees no way to put those principles to work other than through murder.
Consider the movie’s opening scenes, which are designed to mislead us. Ryunosuke comes across an old man and his granddaughter at a roadside shrine, overhears the man’s prayers to deliver him from worldly suffering, and grants him his wish by killing him on the spot. The girl is appalled and heartbroken, and the audience has been set up to accept Ryunosuke as a heartless and bloodthirsty murderer who slaughters the innocent. Then the film assembles one situation after another in which Ryunosuke kills, but not without a moral precedent for killing that any other man would find sensible (self-defense, mainly). Most movies would have a man killing in self-defense, and then later on down the line committing some atrocity that forces us to rethink him. Sword of Doom puts the atrocity first, thereby telling us: This man is capable of anything. The initial murder colors his later behavior, scrupulous or disciplined as it might be, so that even smarter audiences have trouble seeing anything except a monster. All of this is quite deliberate.
Ryunosuke has been appointed to challenge a rival, Bunnojo, in a dueling exhibition. Bunnojo’s wife Ohama is desperate to prevent the match from taking place; she’s convinced that one, the other, or both of them will be slaughtered, and tries to bribe Ryunosuke with sex to call the match off. He refuses — but another man takes advantage of Ohama’s disregard for her propriety and rapes her. (Okamoto sets the scene in a grain-pounding mill, and the pistonlike thudding of the machinery in the building is as blatant and ugly a sexual metaphor as you could ask for.) Later, at the match, Bunnojo makes a concerted effort to murder Ryunosuke and is in turn killed, along with a whole slew of Bunnojo’s comrades who come to avenge him. Like the antihero detective in Kitano’s Violent Cop, Ryunosuke only kills when provoked, but the movie stops short of arguing that this makes him any the less evil. Most anyone would kill when given the right circumstances, so his behavior may be appropriate given the times, but it is hardly distinguished. It simply makes him suited to his environment.
The one great moral counterbalance in the film is Toranosuke, whose outgoing
courage and finesse throw Ryunosuke's solipsism into sharp relief.
What happens next is even more intriguing. A disgraced Ohama then turns to Ryunosuke and asks to be his wife. Why? My theory is simple: of all the people she’s experienced in this matter, he was the only one who behaved like he had a shred of honor. He has nothing but contempt for her, or anyone who chooses to disgrace themselves to get the better of him. Her brother Toranosuke (Toshiro Mifune), who runs a fencing school of his own, is hesitant when Ryunosuke appears to him and asks to be taken on as a pupil. Why? His own sword style — a weirdly passive one, something like a brutal samurai version of playing possum — is more than effective. The answer, to me, is that he wants to test himself, to see what sort of enemies he is truly best suited to. When he comes up against the upright, spirited Toranosuke in a vicious clan-versus-clan brawl (note that “Tora” means “tiger”; “Ryu” means “dragon”!); he collapses. The one thing he cannot face up to is someone whose actions and principles embody each other — someone, in other words, like him. Maybe even better than him: Toranosuke chooses to put his skill at the service of others by being a teacher; Ryunosuke chooses to be self-seeking and solipsistic.
But the two of them never clash, as we might have expected to happen. Instead, there is a fairly elaborate plot digression involving the Shinsengumi (a street-level militia organized by the Shogunate in its dying days), and then Ryunosuke re-encounters the one person in the film he harmed for no good reason whatsoever: the granddaughter of the pilgrim he murdered. When Ryunosuke is faced with this, he has a final plunge into homicidal madness, and the film ends, incredibly, on a freeze-frame of the man in the middle of a slaughtering frenzy. We do not learn if he lives or dies, whether he kills or is redeemed, whether others set up in the story as a foil for him or this anonymous crew are the ones who kill him — if he dies, that is. The film doesn’t end, it terminates.
What’s most ironic about this ending is twofold. One, it winds up meshing perfectly with the movie’s other themes, and in fact enhances them. Two, it was entirely serendipitous. Okamoto was adapting a serialized novel by Kaizan Nakazato (which had been filmed several times before), and had decided to break the action of the story across more than one film. Subsequent installments in the series were never shot, however, so the movie simply stops. And yet, the abrupt ending (or lack of an ending, really) gives the whole film a nihilistic power no other conclusion could provide. We don’t have the comfort of an ending at all — not even a bleak one where everyone dies, perhaps with the “dragon” and “tiger” slaughtering each other — so we’re forced to de al with everything we’ve seen on its own terms. Instead of becoming open-ended, as it might have been in a less intelligent movie, it becomes totally self-contained.
I have seen several discussions of the movie that interpret it as being a parable about an avenging angel: Ryunosuke is beyond good and evil, doling out divine justice in its purest form, etc. I am not sure I subscribe to this interpretation for one simple reason: if that were true, then surely an embodiment of divine justice would not succumb to madness so completely. I don’t doubt, however, that such a creature would take pleasure in his work (think of John Doe from SE7EN), nor do I doubt that he would only find himself stymied by someone else who embodied his own morality just as fearlessly.
The choice of casting is also interesting. Okamoto’s Lion and Assassin both starred Toshiro Mifune, doing what he did best — i.e., being flambuoyant and fiery. Here we have the hypnotic, simmering Nakadai in the lead role instead, which makes sense: Mifune would have brought too much spirit, too much humanity to a role that repudiates it. Instead, he plays Ryunosuke’s antagonist — not a villain, but a wise, sensible, humane and thoroughly honorable man who, like his counterpart, only kills when challenged.
Most films set out to advance a specific premise and deliver that through the context of a story. The truly great films do not advance a premise, but ask a question, and withhold any prepackaged answer. Sword of Doom gives us a character and systematically breaks most of the rules we would need to make decisions about him. Is Ryunosuke evil? Insane? Misguided? The product of a bad environment? Too pure for the world? In this case, we don’t even get the benefit of an ending to help us decide. Whether or not that’s what they intended seems entirely beside the point.