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The Criterion Collection presents
The Sword of Doom (Daibosatsu toge) (1965)

"The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword. Evil mind, evil sword."
- Shimada (Toshiro Mifune)

Review By: Matt Peterson  
Published: March 14, 2005

Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Toshiro Mifune
Other Stars: Michiyo Aratama, Yuzo Kayama, Yoko Naito, Kei Sato, Ko Nichimura, Ichiro Nakatani, Tadao Nakamaru
Director: Kihachi Okamoto

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (graphic samurai violence, some sensuality)
Run Time: 02h:00m:14s
Release Date: March 15, 2005
UPC: 037429203026
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A B+A-B+ D

DVD Review

Omatsu (Yoko Naito) pauses along the remote Daibosatsu Pass to take in the fresh sun-drenched air. She is traveling with her ailing grandfather, and the journey is nearly over. It is a glorious day—bloodshed is the furthest thing from her mind. After the young girl scampers off to retrieve drinking water, a dark shadowy figure looms, blotting out the midday light. Ryunosuke's body is draped in the characteristic kimono, which hangs like the robes of a reaper; it seems to cover a presence more than a body. Atop his head sits a giant, oversized straw hat. He peers out through the hat's slits at the defenseless old man, who offers prayers to Buddha for Omatsu to be free of the burden of his care. His request is granted with one stroke of Ryunosuke's swift sword.

This cruel opening is the first barrage of the late Kihachi Okamoto's Sword of Doom. In the anti-hero tradition of 1960s cinema, continued by such greats as Peckinpah and Leone, it tells the tale of the soulless Ryunosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), a man whose obsession with swordsmanship has infected his very being, turning him into a dark, nihilistic apparition of a man. He kills without mercy or the pangs of conscience; to him, it is a matter of survival, and a means to demonstrate his prowess. As he discusses with the wife of opponent Bunnojo (Ichiro Nakatani)—who begs Ryunosuke to spare her husband's life in an upcoming match—losing is equivocal to giving up one's chastity. Later, in an old mill, he has his way with the woman (accompanied by the suggestive sounds and workings of the mill). She thinks her body may change his mind; Ryunosuke dispatches Bunnojo anyway.

When Ryunosuke stumbles upon a kendo school, run by the experienced Shimada (legend Toshiro Mifune), he faces the young protégé Hyoma Utsugi (Yuzo Kayama). Ryunosuke shows off his silent swordplay style, during which he seems to enter a trance in anticipation of the attack. He never makes the first move, but before his opponent can finish his, Ryunosuke delivers what would be a fatal blow. Unbeknownst to the evil swordsman, Hyoma is the brother of his deceased opponent Bunnojo. Shimada cautions the young one, stating he is not ready to face the skilled Ryunosuke. Training and patience are required before victory can even be considered. Distracting Hyoma from his mission is Omatsu, survivor of Daibosatsu Pass, who catches the samurai's eye. Still, he holds to business before pleasure.

As the Shogonate dissolves in favor of the rising imperialism, Ryunosuke has aligned himself with various criminal groups, killing for money. An early form of yakuza, his targets are plentiful, but his existence, all the more empty. He lives with the wife of his defeated foe and their baby. Occasional glimmers of humanity shine through when he sees the little child or hears the blowing of his father's favorite instrument, the bamboo flute; his soul is not completely destroyed, but the blood on his hands does not wash away easily. Death in generous amounts can even wear on the most evil of men and Ryunosuke is beginning to feel the strain. As Hyoma tracks the killer out of a desire to avenge his brother, another storm is brewing, promising to engage Ryunosuke in mortal combat, where opponents are endless, both real and ghostly.

A thoroughly entertaining film, Sword of Doom is one of the best samurai pictures Kurosawa never made. It does not contain the humanity and philosophy that enlivens his work, but it contains plenty of Kurosawa veterans. Mifune goes without saying, though it is interesting to note his student, Yuzo Kayama; the pair would be mentor/protégé once more in Kurosawa's masterful Red Beard. Nakadai is no stranger to the villainous role, taking on Mifune in Yojimbo (indeed, one dazzling fight featuring Mifune borrows heavily from that oft-remade film). Accompanied by the wonderful strains of composer Masaru Sato, Kurosawa fans will love the homages throughout.

Okamoto's picture contains some masterful visuals, fully utilizing the Tohoscope frame to capture some wonderfully innovative uses of light and shadow. With plenty of style, this film simply explodes with some wonderfully staged swordfights that would shame Kill Bill: Vol. 1 with their prowess and, ahem, lack of gratuitous gore. Without a doubt, these are some graphic displays, but the pure physicality of Nakadai's bug-eyed glares and Mifune's masculine posturing are the focus of attention. The story here is quite intricate. All the threads come together, promising a stunning conclusion that never really occurs. Okamoto closes with an abrupt, unexpected ending. Evidently, this was planned as a first film in a series that never came together. Akin to Wong Kar-Wai's lingering shot of Tony Leung at the end of Days of Being Wild, it is a cliffhanger with no rescue.

Perhaps this is the point; violence can lead to unsatisfying endings. Ryunosuke will keep fighting, though, taking on the whole world if necessary.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Criterion's anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is superb. A bit contrasty at times, this image exhibits deep blacks and good detail. The picture can appear a bit noisy due to some fine grain or an occasional bit of print damage, but I can't imaging this film looking much better.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The monaural audio has some surprising range, supporting Masaru Sato's memorable score. Dialogue is clear, if a bit muffled at times, and hiss is minimal. Well done.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Insert with an essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien
Extras Review: The only extra is an insert with an informative essay by Geoffrey O'Brien. The author discusses the film's cinematic environment and literary origins, which explains the ending, or lack thereof.

The new subtitles are thankfully free of euphemisms.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

Slashes and screams galore, Sword of Doom is a superb samurai picture that dazzles with excellent visuals and fine performances from Kurosawa vets. Criterion's barebones disc looks and sounds great.


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