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The Sword of Doom
(Dai-bosatsu tôge)
Director: Kihachi Okamoto
Screenplay: Shinobu Hashimoto (based on the novel by Kaizan Nakazato)
Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai (Ryunosuke Tsukue), Yuzo Kayama (Hyoma Utsuki), Michiyo Aratama (Ohama), Toshiro Mifune (Toranosuke Shimada), Yoko Naito (Omatsu), Tadao Nakamaru (Isamu Kondo), Ichiro Nakaya (Bunnojo Utsuki), Kô Nishimura (Shichibei), Kamatari Fujiwara (Omatsu’s grandfather)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1965
Country: Japan
The Sword of Doom Blu-ray
The Sword of Doom Ending a film with a freeze-frame is a potent and powerfully self-conscious decision, one that invariably draws attention to the final image and literally begs it to, if not explain, then cast an interpretive light on the rest of the film. One might think of the freeze frame of Antoine Doinel running on the beach at the end of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), capturing his gaze into the camera that conveys directly to the audience the sense of longing that fuelled his rebelliousness throughout the film (and its subsequent sequels). In a different vein, there’s the famous freeze-frame ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), which served to withhold the protagonists’ gory deaths behind an image of them bursting out of their hiding place with guns blazing, thus forever fixing them within a frame of romanticized heroism.

Kihachi Okamoto’s superb samurai drama The Sword of Doom (Dai-bosatsu tôge) also ends on a freeze frame, an evocative, troubling final image of the film’s heinous anti-hero Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai) in mid-slash, his face a twisted mask of agony and ecstasy. On the one hand, the final image is explainable in purely narrative terms: Sword of Doom, which was based on a serialized novel that ran in Japanese newspapers for some three decades starting in 1913, was intended to be the first of a series of films. Thus, the freeze frame signifies little more than a halt in a progressive narrative with the suggestion that more is to come. On the other hand, a sequel was never made, thus the final image becomes literally the final image, and its power resides in the way it captures forever the antiheroic protagonist in the frenzy of violence that had defined his life.

Ryunosuke is a complex, enigmatic character; on an intellectual level you know you should despise him, yet he fascinates you anyway. A resoundingly amoral killer, Ryunosuke slashes his way through life with nothing—not political ideology, not religion, not personal gain, not vengeance—to explain his murderous ways. He’s wrath without explanation, which makes him all the more fearsome and all the more fascinating.

The story in Sword of Doom stretches out in rough, episodic fashion over three years. Along the way, Ryunosuke kills an opponent (Ichiro Nakaya) after promising the man’s wife (Michiyo Aratama) that he would throw the fight in exchange for sex (which, as depicted here, is much closer to rape). Left without a husband, the woman becomes his companion and mother to his child, even though he continually degrades and abuses her. Tracked by his victim’s vengeful brother, Ryunosuke never seems concerned that he is ever in mortal danger, which gives him a demonic, eternal quality. When a noble samurai instructor (Toshiro Mifune) plots how to defeat him, there is the sense that Ryunosuke is, in his own terrible way, everlasting.

The Sword of Doom is bookended with Ryunosuke’s most fearsome violence: In the film’s opening sequence, he kills an elderly pilgrim at a mountaintop shrine for no apparent reason, and in the apocalyptic finale, he is hacking and slashing his way through an endless army of opponents, some of whom are flesh and blood and some of whom are ghostly apparitions of his earlier victims. In this sense, the film seems to be making a moral point about the circularity of violence, how Ryunosuke’s lethal sins come back to haunt him in the end, but his message succeeds only if you ignore the intended extension of the narrative into sequels. Ending as it does, it literally traps Ryunosuke in his own hell, but those who know the history of the film understand that it is a hell from which he invariably escapes, as evil always does.

The Sword of Doom Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
Audio Japanese Linear PCM 1.0 Monaural
  • Audio commentary by film historian Stephen Prince
  • Trailer
  • Essay by film critic Geoffrey O’Brien
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 6, 2015

    Sword of Doom, which was originally released by Criterion back in its laser disc days, was given a new high-definition transfer from a 35mm composite fine-grain master in 2005 for its DVD release, and the transfer on this Blu-ray looks to be the same one presented in full 2K with additional digital restoration. Along with the MTI Digital Restoration System, Pixel Farm’s PFClean and Digital Vision’s Phoenix have ensured a clean, stable, artifact-free image that is generally sharp and well-detailed, with good shadow detail and a nice range of grays. The contrast is not quite as delineated as you might expect, but it doesn’t take away from the strength of the image. The original monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the optical soundtrack print, is limited in range and a bit tinny, but that’s to be expected given its age. The sound effects, particularly all the hacking and slashing, carry a pretty good punch, and digital restoration has removed virtually all of the ambient hiss and pops.
    While no supplements were included on the laser disc or DVD, Criterion has commissioned an excellent new audio commentary by film scholar and historian Stephen Prince. Prince has contributed to a number of Criterion discs, including several of their Kurosawa releases, and he again does not disappoint with an enjoyably informative track that goes a long way toward expanding one’s appreciation of the film and its place in the samurai genre. Also new to the Blu-ray is a trailer.

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

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