Kihachi Okamoto's The Sword of Doom is likely to strike the unalerted viewer as an exercise in absurdist violence, tracking the career of a nihilistic swordsman from his gratuitous murder of a defenseless old man to his final descent into what looks like a rehearsal for global annihilation, as, in a kind of ecstasy, he slaughters a seemingly endless army of attackers both real and phantasmal. The extreme but stylized violence of Okamoto's 1966 film epitomizes a mode of Japanese filmmaking that profoundly influenced such directors as Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, and it would be easy—and not entirely inaccurate—to read the film in the light of the cynical antiheroic trends that surfaced in genre films all over the world in the 1960s and surmise that it represented the same kind of break with heroic tradition as, say, spaghetti westerns. It should be kept in mind, however, that The Sword of Doom was only the most recent episode derived from a long line of stage and film versions of an immensely long, structurally meandering novel that has remained popular ever since the appearance of its first installments a year after the death of the emperor Meiji (the ruler who oversaw Japan's transition from hermetically sealed feudal state to modern industrialized nation), and whose ostensible theme is religious.
The novel, Daibosatsu toge (The Great Bodhisattva Pass, The Sword of Doom's Japanese title), originated as a newspaper serial in 1913 and continued to appear for three more decades; forty-one volumes were published before it was left uncompleted at the death of its author, Kaizan Nakazato (1885–1944). Nakazato, a sometime telephone operator and assistant teacher, avowed himself a literary disciple of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Victor Hugo and was deeply influenced by Christianity and socialism; he was a pacifist during the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05) and kept himself aloof from cultural entities associated with the military government in the 1930s and '40s. His novel was intended as an expression of Mahayana Buddhism, with the earthly actions of its characters, and most especially of the demonic swordsman Ryunosuke Tsukue, nothing more than the working out of karmic law. The political background—the struggle of various shadowy groups either to uphold the power of the shogunate or to bring about the restoration of direct imperial rule—is itself only one layer in Nakazato's cosmic vision, in which the hero's seemingly evil path is dictated by forces beyond his control. However, Ryunosuke is one of those characters who seem to have escaped from their author's control, taking on a life of their own––he is an icon of popular culture as an embodiment (in the words of the scholar C´cile Sakai) of “the fascination of evil . . . which gives him his seemingly paradoxical charisma." Ryunosuke is the archetypal fallen angel of early modern Japan, a figure who elicits sympathetic identification by the uncompromising intensity with which he follows his path, even if that path seems to lead into darkness.
While the novel was still appearing in installments, stage adaptations were already being produced of its early episodes, and these were followed by a two-part 1935 film version (now presumed lost) whose directors included Hiroshi Inagaki, known for his later Samurai Trilogy and his 1962 version of Chushingura. After the war, it was remade repeatedly, in three parts by Kunio Watanabe in 1953, in three parts by Tomu Uchida in 1957–59, and in three parts by Kenji Misumi and Kazuo (a.k.a. Issei) Mori in 1960– 61. The freeze-frame that concludes Okamoto's film should be seen not as an ending but as a pause while awaiting later installments that were never made (covering episodes in which, among other things, the hero goes blind and changes sides to support the imperial faction). The gaps and unresolved story lines that are apt to bewilder a viewer coming to the film cold would not have posed a problem for an audience thoroughly familiar with the source material; Okamoto's film, a series of set pieces content to skip over much connecting matter, might almost be called Famous Scenes from “Daibosatsu toge."
This is not to say that the film's enigmatic qualities are due solely to the uniniti- ated state of Western audiences. A sense of the mysteriousness of violence is essential to Nakazato's novel and Okamoto's film alike. Ryunosuke is at once hero and villain, demon and potential bodhisattva, and Tatsuya Nakadai's stunning performance incarnates perfectly the paradox at the heart of the character: Does he act or is he acted upon? In what sense does he choose his destiny? He seems at times the spectator of his own destructive course, alternately anguished or blackly amused but essentially powerless to change what happens. His unique style of swordsmanship—mumyo otonashi no kamae (form without sound or light)—as enacted by Nakadai has a weirdly passive quality. He seems to go limp, to withdraw into himself, as if his invariably lethal blow is directed not by the exercise but by the abandonment of will. In terms of the body language of sixties cinema, his posture suggests as well a kind of sullen hipsterism, a serpentine deviousness, in the face of the forthright heroic stance of Toshiro Mifune, who plays the noble instructor Shimada.
It's fitting that a film whose characters are so intensely preoccupied with form—who pay such unremitting attention to angles of thrust, movements of feet, pauses, and sight lines—should itself be so stunning on a formal level. In an era of Japanese filmmaking marked by such masterpieces as Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood and Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri, and when even the most routine samurai pictures tended to look very stylish indeed, The Sword of Doom stands out for the rigor and calligraphic pictorialism of its widescreen compositions. It's as if the formal qualities of the swordsmanship so amply displayed in the film's major set pieces—the duel with Bunnojo at the temple and its aftermath, Ryunosuke's visit to Shimada's kendo school, the confrontation in the snow in which Shimada decimates Ryunosuke's associates, and the apocalyptic finale—are being mirrored by the slashing precision and constantly shifting perspectives of the staging and camera work.
Okamoto, who trained as an assistant to the great Mikio Naruse, was only one of many highly competent genre directors of the time. Known as much for his war films (Japan's Longest Day, 1967; The Human Bullet, 1968; The Battle of Okinawa, 1971) as for such period pieces as Samurai Assassin (1965), Kill! (1968), and Red Lion (1969), he often cultivated a satirically humorous tone. In fact, The Sword of Doom was a project imposed on him by Toho after the studio's dissatisfaction with his more personal The Age of Assassins, which he'd completed in 1966 but was held by the studio until 1967. Neither as intimate a filmmaker as Kurosawa nor as subversive an experimentalist as Seijun Suzuki, Okamoto nevertheless demonstrates in The Sword of Doom—with the help of Hiroshi Murai's magnificent cinematography—a mastery of surface that makes the film endlessly pleasurable to watch. (Thanks to Masaru Sato's slashing score, it is also intensely enjoyable to listen to.)
The film's surface, one might say, is its depth: if indeed an evil soul is an evil sword, then form and gesture are a graph of profound undercurrents. The unrelenting visual inventiveness of The Sword of Doom, culminating in the final massacre, with its thousand and one variations on the theme of killing with a sword, is not a matter of flashy illustration but the essence of what the film is about. Gesture here takes on a life of its own; the human killing machine, blinded and stumbling in his own blood, has become something of a force of nature, a destructive essence. The unmistakable visual beauty of the scene is inseparable from its horror. The perversity of the central character takes over the film itself, and perhaps we did not need the sequels that Okamoto never made. What, really, could surpass that freeze-frame of the swordsman caught in mid-rampage, bent on continuing to kill as if it were a way for him finally to extinguish himself?
This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection's 2005 DVD edition of The Sword of Doom.