The film begins in the Spring of 1860. Two travelers, an old man and his granddaughter, are on a pilgrimage to Edo. Stopping at the top of a long mountain pass, the grandfather begins to tell the story of a saint who planted an image of the Buddha in the soil there, and she listens intently. Soon enough, they decide to rest and have lunch, because the way down will be another fifteen miles, so the granddaughter leaves to fetch water.
Then a stranger appears, a grim swordsman who tells the pilgrim to face the West. Then he cuts down the old man. As he leaves, he runs into another traveler (who we later discover to be a thief), and in suspicion asks his name, but the swordsman does not manage to cut him down and the traveler flees.
This mad swordsman is Ryunosuke Tsukue. He returns home to his bedridden father, from whom we learn a few important things. The next day, he has a match scheduled against an instructor from the Kogen Ittoryu school of fencing which Ryunosuke had been expelled from: Bunnojo Utsugi. He implores Ryunosuke to lose the match against Bunnojo, although he knows that Ryunosuke could easily win it. Ryunosuke listens, unaffected, as his father describes his sword style: “You draw out your opponent. Then, in an unguarded moment, you cruelly…” He trails off for a moment, then says, “And the cruelty doesn’t stop with your sword. It seems to have seeped into your mind and body. It frightens me.”
He receives a visit from someone close to Bunnojo, who also begs him to lose the match. After all, he has so little to lose in it, and Bunnojo so much: if Bunnojo were to lose, he would lose his position as an instructor at, and future head of the Kogen Ittoryu fencing school. It would ruin the Utsugi family overnight. For Ryunosuke, there is no shame in loss. In other words, it would be a sort of sportsmanship to lose the match. He tells his visitor, “I, Ryunosuke Tsukue, trust only my sword in this world. When I fight, I have no family.” As their conversation ends, he asks, “Would you surrender your chastity?”
The match, then, was to become a duel. Ryunosuke, our protagonist, eventually winds up in poverty in Edo, a drunkard and petty assassin working with the pro-shogunate Shinsengumi.
Sword of Doom is excellent, there’s no doubt about that for me. Tatsuya Nakadai plays the protagonist, the madman pictured above, and seems almost to single-handedly generate the entire chemistry and cadence of the film, producing onscreen tensions which build to violent (and for, Ryunosuke, ecstatic) resolutions. His victims come to understand the reality of the situation in just the moment before Ryunosuke strikes. His opponents understand before they ever strike intuitively and increasingly the skill Ryunosuke conceals behind his unusual style. A summary of not even fifteen minutes of the film has already told us that the protagonist is not above rape or petty murder for fun. In his actions, from the earliest to the latest, Ryunosuke determines the course of events in ways that create greater levels of destruction in the lives he comes into contact with.
It would be wrong to attribute the excellence of this film solely to Nakadai’s performance. Although Ryunosuke is a chilling figure, many of the actors in this film play their role adequately. Ryunosuke is merely exceptional as a character. The film was also excellently directed. Every scene contributes to a plot that builds to a surreal finale. Ryunosuke and the granddaughter of the pilgrim he murdered sit alone in a back-room in a courtesan’s house and begin to see ghosts. The granddaughter, still young, seems only to be imagining the ghost of a courtesan who killed herself in that room, but Ryunosuke slips slowly and inexorably into madness, seeing greater and greater visions until he is driven to violence, striking at the paper walls behind which he sees his victims with deadly intention in a seemingly endless expanse of paper walls. Before long, his fellow assassins attack him all at once as a lantern Ryunosuke knocked over turns the courtesan’s house into a raging inferno. The battle that commences is the bloodiest and most spectacular of the film by far, and apparently the choreography of Ryu Kuze, who has worked on some of the best samurai flicks out there.
The ending also leaves a ton of open plotlines, as the above picture is the final shot. This film was apparently intended to adapt more of the serial novel and would have constituted the first part in a trilogy, so I wouldn’t look at that as a failing of the film.
In summary, reasons this movie was awesome:
- 1. The protagonist is a psychopath.
- 2. The protagonist kills people.
- 3. This movie is downbeat as hell, doom literally permeates the tone of this film.
- 4. The sword fights are sweet.