Sword of Doom is an acclaimed action film from director Kihachi Okamoto. It tells the story of a ruthless swordsman who is deadly with his sword. The fact that the central character is a very unlikeable character makes the movie different from many of the samurai films that have come out of Japan.
Ryunosuke Tsukue is this central character. He kills a man in a sword fight despite promising the man’s wife that he will give up winning if she offers herself to him (which she does). He becomes an outcast and starts killing in exchange for money. In the meantime, the brother of the killed man is training under a master swordsman, and hopes one day to avenge his brother’s death, and a deadly showdown seems inevitable…
The two best swordsmen in the film are Ryunosuke and the swordmaster Toranosuke Shimada. They are very different in their styles of fighting, and the exact opposites when it comes to honour and respect for fellow swordsmen. Ryunosuke trusts only his sword in the world, and kills without second thoughts, whether it is an enemy or just an innocent old man. He has an evil mind and uses his sword for evil. His character is played wonderfully by Tatsuya Nakadai. His cold emotionless face and piercing stares are enough to send chills up your spine.
Toranosuke, on the other hand, is honourable and shows great respect for swordsmen with good skills. He would only kill if he were forced to. His character is played by the always fabulous Toshiro Mifune, who starred in many classic Japanese samurai films. His portrayal here is both calm and thoughtful. While he is really a supporting actor in the movie, he manages to steal the scene every time he appears on screen.
The action scenes for which the film is famous for are of really high standard. Both of the key actors Nakadai and Mifune carry out the sword actions extremely well. Every move is precise, and every swing of the sword deadly. Many scenes feature one of the master swordsmen taking on tens of skilled opponents. The fights between Ryunosuke and Hyoma Utsuki’s supporters in the forest, and between Toranosuke and assassins from the Shincho group in the snow, are particularly impressive. The brilliant cinematography also helps to capture the atmosphere and tension in these fighting scenes. The final scene of the film is one prolonged action sequence, which will be loved by some viewers while disliked by others. For me, the bloodiness and craziness of the situation were rather uncomfortable.
The structure of the film is worth commenting on. While it manages to grip you right from the beginning, by the time the end credits come on screen, one can’t help but feel that it is not a complete product. The fates of the key characters remain unknown at the end, and it feels like there are a lot more stories to be told. This makes the ending rather ambiguous and open to interpretation. The reason behind this is that Sword of Doom was based on a lengthy Japanese novel and originally intended to be the first of a series of films based on the novel.
With great acting and a wonderful display of sword skills, Sword of Doom is compelling viewing. The film does feel unfinished, and the abrupt ending may be a turn off for some viewers. However, I would still recommend this film to anyone who likes samurai movies, because the good aspects of the film just about make up for its lack of a clear conclusion.