by Jay Seaver
Samurai movies are often tales of righteousness and honor, good men struggling to do what is just within a corrupt system. There are elements of that within "Sword of Doom", to be sure, but a great deal of the movie is centered around the bad guy. Lucky for us, Tatsuya Nakadai is a highly engaging screen villain.His character, Ryunosuke Tsukue, is a monster. His first on-screen victim is an old man visiting a mountaintop shrine with his granddaughter Omatsu (Yoko Naito). Soon afterward he is involved in a duel with low-level samurai Bunnojo Utsuki, and Utsuki's wife Ohama (Michiyo Aratama) begs him to allow Bunnojo to escape with honor and status, offering herself as reward. Tsukue decides to take both the kill and the girl, becoming an assassin for hire under an assumed name. The dead man's brother, Hyoma Utsuki (Yuzo Kayama) vows vengeance, but before he can face Tsukue, he must be trained by a master swordsman (Toshiro Mifune).
"Bring on the bad guy"
Tsukue is a sociopath, and doesn't do much to hide this from the audience. His face is never far from a sneer, his voice is confident to the point of arrogance, and his body language suggests that he's always looking for a fight. Still, it's not hard to see why many people, especially women, initially trust him: He's handsome, well-spoken, and knows the ways of honor well enough to fake it. He is, at times, almost charismatic enough for the audience to root for.
Omatsu is on the other side of the spectrum, perfectly beautiful, kind and guileless, but the characters who exist somewhere between Tsukue and Omatsu bear a little more watching than her. Ms. Aratama, for instance, is pretty great as Ohama; she makes the character sympathetic while also letting the audience kind of see why Tsukue holds her in contempt. Her first appearance may be a wife trying to save her husband's life, but as the movie goes on, she hits the right combination of bitterness and defeat. She's a broken woman, but not entirely deserving of pity or scorn. Kayama also gives a good performance as the film's nominal hero, though he's not as arresting as Nakadai. And it's always good to see Mifune, here the wise mentor.
One of the things director Kihachi Okamoto is best known for is his action, and this film doesn't disappoint. It can't; we need to see that Tsukue's self-confidence is not displaced, lest we feel he just got lucky. So we're given several impressive swordfighting scenes, from young samurai sparring as part of their exercises to more deadly duels. Mifune's master gets to demonstrate his skills when outnumbered, and the big finish of Tsukue rampaging through a brothel is deliriously exciting; by the end, it's not just Hyoma who's looking for blood, and there's a great deal of crashing through walls, overturning candles, and slashing at enemies to be done before the movie ends.
One thing I love about this movie is that there's little attempt to explain Tsukue. He's a villain and for all we know he's always been one, but he interests us enough to wonder. And yet, with as straightforward, cruel, and and at times seemingly unstoppable as he is, he never becomes the sort of larger-than-life/force-of-nature type deal that makes him a cartoon or diminishes the other characters: He's a man, who has runs of bad luck and human limits. You don't see the whole area decide to team up and set aside differences to stop him.Which is what makes this movie exciting; things can, at just about any point, go either way. And the way they go is going to be decided by a kick-ass swordfight.
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originally posted: 01/27/06 14:14:06