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Excellent Film and Action!
on December 5, 1999
SWORD OF DOOM is one of the masterpieces of samurai, and action, cinema but certain aspects of it are difficult for non-Japanese audiences or viewers not familiar with the historical background of the subject.
Toshiro Mifune, who gives a fine performance as fencing master Toranosuke Shimada, once said in an interview, "We [the Japanese producers and filmmakers] know that many samurai films are shown outside of Japan, but we make no attempt to cater to that market." SWORD OF DOOM is a perfect example. It was made for Japanese audiences who are familiar with the original story which had been filmed and staged many times and was well-known. The Japanese audience is expected to be as familiar with the plot and historical details as an American audience watching a film about the Civil War or the Old West is expected to be.
Here are some plot points that may make the film a bit easier to understand for new viewers or for other viewers who previously watched it and got tripped up on some details. I know I did the first time I saw it theatrically. If you found the film difficult on the first viewing, give it another chance. And maybe these notes will help!
* In one scene, the main character Ryunosuke Tsukue changes his name to Yoshida after killing an opponent during a duel. The name change isn't explained in any detail. A subtitle simply identifies a sign outside his house as "Yoshida." Some characters now refer to him as Yoshida and others as Tsukue. Again, remember that Japanese audiences are probably familiar with the change.
* Tsukue first meets Shimada at his fencing school. Tsukue wants to challenge the student who won his match with "a splendid Do attack." This referrers to Kendo, the Japanese martial art of fencing. In Kendo, participants wear headgear and leather armor and fence with bamboo swords. Only certain areas on the body are legitimate striking points: the top of the head, the forearms, and the sides. When Tsukue defeats his opponent, Shimada says, "Men. He won." He's referring to a point scored, not addressing his students!
* In one scene, a title informs the viewer, "The Shinsen Group is formed!" The Shinsen Group (Shinsengumi) were a para-military group of swordsmen who vowed to protect the Tokugawa Shogunate which was losing its once vast power. Shinsengumi fought against anything that might weaken the Shogunate; including foreign influences and internal factions. The Shinsengumi have been portrayed many times in movies and TV shows. In some cases, they are portrayed as self-sacrificing patriots loyal to their country. In others, they are portrayed as a fascist military group killing anyone who opposes them or the Shogunate. Toshiro Mifune starred in and produced an excellent film about them called BAND OF ASSASSINS (SHINSENGUMI). Hopefully, AnimEigo will eventually release this.
* The final scene. What exactly happens? Does Tsukue kill dozens of men and then die? Does he survive to face the brother of the man he killed? Or is the entire battle only in his deranged mind? It's the last scenario. When Tsukue ran out of men to kill, his warped mind invented more. Of the three versions I've seen, (this version, a trilogy of films made in the 1950s by Tomu Uchida and another trilogy made in the 1960s by Kenji Misumi) this is the only version that doesn't explicitly show that Tsukue is imagining the final battle.
* What does happen to Tsukue? If you'd rather not find out, skip to the next paragraph. Tsukue is blinded during an explosion and becomes more of a sympatric figure. The avenging brother finally has a chance to settle with him during a violent storm. He hesitates to kill the nearly defenseless Tsukue. A flood washes Tsukue away to his death.
SWORD OF DOOM is a fantastic film to watch. The director, Kihachi Okamoto, was one of the most impressive visual stylists working in film. The final scene holds up beautifully today. The acting is excellent all around. Nakadai as Tsukue gives one of the screens best performances. Few actors could create such disturbingly nihilistic characters as Nakadai does in this performance. The character is a perfect contrast to Mifune's Shimada. Both are highly skilled swordsmen but Mifune knows that "an evil soul is an evil sword."