With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013
With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

ACF 892: Sword of Doom at Japan Society

The Sword of Doom / Dai-bosatsu toge
Directed by Kihachi Okamoto
Japan, 1966, 119 minutes
When: Friday, February 18, 2011, at 7:30 PM
Where: Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, New York, NY
(Between 1st and 2nd Avenues)

The soul is the sword.
Study the soul to know the sword
Evil mind, evil sword.
- Instructor and master swordsman Toranosuke Shimada (Toshiro Mifune)

Kihachi Okamoto directed many jida geki (period films) that are well-known in the West and available on DVD, such as Samurai Assassin, Kill!, Red Lion, and Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo. But The Sword of Doom most certainly is the one with which Westerners are most familiar.

Set in the early 1860s, as the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate is about to fall, it is based upon an incredibly lengthy novel entitled Daibosatsu Toge ("Great Budda Pass") by Kaizan Nakazato. The novel, from which the film gets its name in Japanese, was serialized in newspapers for over three decades, starting in 1913! It remained unfinished at the time of Nakazato's death in 1944, by which time forty-one volumes had been published.

The film stars Tatsuya Nakadai as Ryunosuke Tsukue, the epitome of the anti-hero. He is cruel and evil, a man seemingly without conscience, and dedicated only to using his sword. Kicked out of the sword school where he studied, he is forced to leave his village after killing an opponent in a competition and then dispatching numerous of his associates who are seeking revenge. Ryunuske then joins a shinsengumi, an unofficial group of men supporting the Tokugawa shogunate, not out of political conviction but to earn money for saki and to use his sword to kill.

There have been several film versions of this story, usually in two or three parts. One that was done in three parts is Satan's Sword. This trilogy was directed by Kenji Misumi (Parts 1 and 2, both 1960) and Kazuo Mori (Part 3, 1961). It starred Raizo Ichikawa (the Shinobi no mono and Nemuri Kyoshiro series, as well as numerous other films) as Ryunoske. Okomoto's version also was to have been a trilogy, which may account for the now iconic freeze frame on which The Sword of Doom concludes. For whatever reason, the other films were not made.

I've now seen The Sword of Doom at least three times. It's only been with my recently watching it again to refresh my memory and write this post that I've come to realize what a great film it is. Previously I was thrown by some of the leaps in the narrative, which no longer bother me, and the feeling that the film doesn't end but seems to just stop. The gaps in the story line of the film probably didn't bother the Japanese filmgoers, since the massive original story was pretty familiar to them. And the "ending" was intended as a "cliff-hanger" in anticipation of the next installment, which as it turned out, never came to be.

I've now come to appreciate the film as it is, especially the three great set pieces, each of the one-against-many category. The first and last, an awesome finale, feature Nakadai; the one in the middle has Mifune decimating members of the shinsengumi who have mistakenly attacked him thinking he was someone else.

The Sword of Doom is a classic, no ifs-ands-or-buts. So it not surprisingly earns an ACF Rating of 4 out of 4 stars, highest recommendation.

Buy Tickets Online for Friday's screening or call the Japan Society Box Office at (212) 715-1258, Mon. - Fri. 11 am - 6 pm, Weekends 11 am - 5 pm.

For those not in New York or who simply cannot make the screening, The Sword of Doom is also available on a DVD from The Criterion Collection. There are no extras on the disc, but a very informative, short essay by Geoffrey O'Brien is included with the DVD.

And for a really good, recent New York Times article about samurai films written by Wendell Jamieson, in which The Sword of Doom looms large, click here.

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