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Thursday, 16 June 2011

Day Of The Samurai 1: The Sword Of Doom

So, I've recently come up with a new idea for a series of reviews. I will be reviewing a single Samurai film every week, there is no specific day for the review, it can be any random day of the week.
This will help me work my way through the very large collection of Samurai films I've gathered, and will perhaps get some of you readers interested in this most entertaining of genres.

There is no real order to the films chosen, they will be from many different directors and from the period between the late 50's and early 70's, the Golden Age of Samurai cinema. The films chosen will range from classic Kurosawa such as The Hidden Fortress to Lady Snowblood and Zatoichi. However, I won't be including any Western Samurai themed films, such as The Last Samurai, but I may review some recent Samurai films such as 13 Assassins or Twilight Samurai occasionally.
Basically this is just an small outlet for me to express my love of this genre.

For this first day I have chosen one of the very best Samurai films to have come out of the 60's.  
The Sword Of Doom - 1966 directed by Kihachi Okamoto
Okamoto is a name that will surely be appearing a lot in these posts. With such films as Kill!, Samurai Assassin, Sword of Doom, Red Lion and the famous crossover, Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, he has firmly established his reputation as one of the best directors of Samurai films.

The Sword Of Doom is a very peculiar film. This is due to the fact that the ending is entirely inconclusive. In fact it ends with a freeze frame leaving the audience guessing as to the fate of the main character who happens to be in the middle of a particularly thrilling fight at the time. None of the various subplots are concluded either.
Over the years the film has become somewhat famous for it's ending and has reached a pretty important Cult status.
Originally though it as intended to be the first part of a trilogy of films, thus we see the groundwork for many sub-plots being laid and characters being introduced and such but the film never really gets into full swing. This just makes it even more enticing, as what we are shown is fascinating and quite unlike any other Samurai film of the time.

The film centers around one character in particular, named Ryonosuke played by Tatsuya Nakadai, he is a lonesome, psychotic Samurai who only follows the Way of the Samurai to satisfy his bloodthirstiness.
After a fencing competition that results in the death of the respected Samurai facing Ryonosuke, he leaves the clan along with the wife of his opponent who he had seduced beforehand.
He joins a group of similarly bloodthirsty Samurai who are employed by the Tokugawa dynasty to destroy their enemies. He divides his time between slaying the enemies of his employers and spending time with his mistress and their baby. Is is never specifically stated that he is insane, but his emotionless attitude and cold calculating evil nature suggest this very clearly.
Soon he learns that the younger brother of the man he slew earlier is in search of him and is bent upon revenging his loss. Ryonosuke is a swordsman with few rivals though, and is not worried by this threat to his life. However the arrival of another character into the story severely shakes his confidence causing him eventually to lose whatever flimsy grip he had upon sanity and descend into a psychotic frenzy.

Aside the peculiar nature of the film, the fact it is basically all set up and no climax, there are other elements that make it a most interesting watch.
The most evident of these would be the overpowering nihilistic atmosphere of the film. It is dark, depressing and despite the large amount of action sequences, feels more like a character study, a psychological drama if you will, than an action/adventure film. Not a typical Samurai film at all, in fact it feels more like it's trying to subvert the genre rather than belong to it.

Ryonosuke is unlike any main character I've seen before in a Samurai film of this period, calling him an anti-hero is even a bit of a stretch. He is an all out villain. 
This struck me as a big departure from the traditional films of this kind. For it shows a Samurai who is pure evil.
Often villains in Samurai films are bandits (thus making them inferior to Samurai in all ways), or possibly notables such as mayors or other people in positions of power, or ronin of some kind who are often employed by the people in positions of power making them secondary villains of sorts, but when they are Samurai they are depicted as honourable villains, who are much like the heroes just on the wrong side of the fight.
However in this film the villain is the main character and is a complete opposite of Shimada, the character played by none other than my hero, Toshiro Mifune. So we have two very different Samurai who both embody the dual natures of the Samurai, one has given in to the violent psychopathic way, the way of blood and of the sword, thus he has become ruled by his sword as they say in the film. The other represents everything that is noble and honourable about the way of the Samurai.

Like many classic Samurai films, this one is constructed around a pretty predictable format. One fight in the beginning, one half way through, and one to end the film.  Of course this is overly simplified, but if you have watched many such films you will surely have noticed that many of them follow this basic format.
Sword Of Doom abides by this basic format, but doesn't feel like an action film.
In fact it is a very ambitious film. We have a romantic subplot on display, as well as some brief delvings into the politics of the time, the secrets of the Way of the Samurai, some surreal sequences and a look at one of the most despicable characters to be put in a lead role.
This may sound like a bit of a messy film, but it really isn't, all these elements are well laid out and combine to form an extremely interesting film. However I couldn't help but wish that the two sequels had been made, as all the various threads of plots were highly promising and I looked forward to seeing an epic showdown between Nakadai and Mifune.

A word must be said about the fantastic cinematography this film is blessed with. It truly is a marvel to behold, especially the lengthy scenes that take place in the falling snow or the heavy rain.
The director, Okamoto, and his cinematographer Hiroshi Murai (who worked with Okamoto on the acclaimed Samurai Assassin) did a brilliant job portraying both the countryside of Japan, and the urban landscape.
Visibly inspired by Kurosawa (who couldn't be?) the elements such as the pouring rain and the falling snow are used to great effect throughout the film.

Another mention must be given to one of the more celebrated and influential elements on this film. The violence. It was particularly impressive and highly memorable, mainly due to the remarkable editing by Yoshitami Kuroiwa, who creates some very dynamic and thrilling action sequences that manage to resemble the traditional Samurai action sequences in the way they are set up and executed, yet also manages to provide something slightly different. He adds a certain frenzied fervour that, combined with the magnetic performance of Nakandai and the irreverent attitude of the director towards the Samurai code which causes the fights to be messier and more destructive instead of the simpler more direct duels of other such films, creates some particularly thrilling fights that somehow have slightly more impact than other similar fight scenes. For despite the utter vileness of Ryonosuke, we can't help but be fascinated by him and await his eventual downfall with impatience but also apprehension, for after all how can such an uncontrollable but brilliant swordsman ever be stopped? Sadly though, we never see this downfall, and are left to draw our own conclusions as to what transpired.

But all in all, Sword of Doom is a Samurai masterpiece, it's surely very unconventional but that works in the films favour and really distinguishes it from the multitude of other similar films. Mifune and Nakadai are as charismatic as I expected them to be and on the whole I wasn't disappointed. In fact I was left wanting more, which can only be a good thing.

Have you seen this film? If so what did you think of it?
Also how do you like my new feature? Would you be interested in seeing more similar posts?

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