Legendary Japanese actor, Tatsuya Nakadai stepped onto the scene in the late 50’s as a WWII soldier in The Human Condition trilogy, and made a slew of masterful performances in the 60’s starring as the foil to Toshiro Mifune’s “Yojimbo”, and an avenging samurai in “Harakiri”.
Another samurai drama in the jidaigeki genre of the 60’s had Nakadai play the most dangerous swordsman to roam the land in a nihilistic tale with some of the most vicious and bloodiest sword play in the history of Samurai film!
Tatsuya Nakadai plays Ryunosuke Tsukue, an amoral ronin who is skilled with a sword, and a walking force of destruction to anyone in his wake. Tsukue serves as the protagonist and antagonist in the film.
Legendary actor, Toshiro Mifune, plays Toranosuke Shimada, a master swordsman of Okachimachi with a sharp knowledge that affects Ryunosuke and other significant players who aim to bring him down.
Set in the Edo period of Japan, the film centers on a wandering ronin, Ryunosuke Tsukue. One of the most skilled swordsmen in the story, his sociopathic tendencies tend to get people killed by his sword, whether they are innocent or guilty, without a shred of remorse.
Throughout the film, his actions not only begin to garner him a great deal of unwanted attention, but causes a series of destruction to everyone around him.
After killing a successor to the Kogen Ittoryu school in an exhibition match, Ryunosuke had marked himself with a death sentence. In one case, the victim’s brother trains under the guidance of a master swordsman, Toranosuke Shimada, perfecting a technique to counteract Ryunosuke’s style.
Under the teachings of the Kogen Ittoryu school, Ryunosuke adapts a rather unorthodox take on the style of swordplay. By pointing his sword to the floor and facing downwards, he leads his opponents into a false sense of security, waiting for them to close the distance before striking them down.
An Exhibition Grudge Match
In a bid to save her husband’s honour in a non-lethal exhibition bout at Mount Mitake, Ohama offers her virginity to Ryunosuke so he may throw the match.
Upon hearing of his wife’s betrayal, Bunnojo Utsuki decides to disregard the rules and lunges towards Ryunosuke in a fit of rage.
In response, Ryunosuke parries the charge, and strikes his opponent down with a blow to the head. Although the match is declared a draw, Ryunosuke’s counter attack proves to be fatal.
With no music, and a limited amount of dialogue, the performance from the cast illustrates a history between the two combatants and the thought process from the background characters.
The Pine Forest Walk of Doom
In retaliation for the death of Bunnojo, his loyalists ambush the remorseless killer in an attempt to avenge the heir to the Kogen Ittoryu school.
With the numbers stacked against him, Ryunosuke continues to walk in a Suriashi style of movement with a stoic expression, and with every incoming swordsman on the offensive, Ryunosuke cuts them down one by one with an effortless stream of slashes with his blade of evil, leaving a trail of dead bodies in his wake.
This long shot of actor Tatsuya Nakadai mowing down swordsmen is taken in one steady take, and a lack of music further adds brutal ambience to the strikes and haunting scenery.
Blood Bath in the Snow
On a howling, snowy evening, Ryunosuke accompanies a hoard of assassins, with Toranosuke Shimada as their target.
With the transporters disposed of, Shimada bursts out of his norimono, welcoming the first assailant with a slash to the belly.
Every charge from each assassin is met with vengeful, yet skilled, counter attack from the master.
With only the leader remaining, Shimada slices his sword in half, wrestles him to the ground, and berates the leader for allowing his own men to die, but lets him live with the humiliation of defeat.
Throughout this whole ordeal, Ryunosuke stands and observes the display from a skilled swordsman, with a troubled expression pondering whether or not he has what it takes to face a worthy adversary for the first time in his life.
With Toshiro Mifune in the center, his swordplay gives this scene the right amount of thrills and horror, thanks to his experience, tenacity and confidence.
Courtesan House of Madness and Mayhem
Haunted by the cries of his victims, Ryunosuke begins to cut his way through the courtesan house walls like a mad man.
It isn’t until assassins in greater numbers ambush him that Ryunosuke’s blade starts carving flesh.
As the courtesan house is set ablaze, the assailants keep coming for Ryunosuke’s life, yet even with a never-ending stream of swordsmen, this sociopath continues to cut down anyone who dares to face up to him in all directions.
With a few managing to inflict a small number of cuts, Ryunosuke repays them in the most brutal fashion. In spite of his wounds and clear exhaustion, this ronin terrifyingly continues to slay every last intruder like a man possessed, before bringing his reign of murder to a close, slashing towards the camera in a freeze frame.
Despite the abruptness of the ending, the director knows when to capture the actor’s fight performance with a wide lens, and uses close ups to expose the most gruesome blows, making this one of the most unnerving fights in cinema history.
Although the film ends on an abrupt freeze frame of all things, with Ryunosuke’s fate left unknown, there’s still a lot of harrowing and raw emotion in this jidaigeki classic.
At a time when the genre was dominated by lone, stoic anti-heroes, it was rare to see a full-on villain as the centerpiece of the story.
From start to finish, Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance is brimming with an aura that gives a sense of uncertainty and dread.
Nakadai’s fight performances are as unpredictable and malicious as the monster he portrays, with every cut proving as unforgiving as the last.
The action and the setting showcase a bleak, yet majestic, period all thanks to the efforts of director Kihachi Okamoto and the cast who bring forth a tale of deception and violence of an unforgiving nature.
- “The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword. Evil mind, evil sword.” – Shimada
- The film was originally intended to be the first in a trilogy of films adapting Nakazato Kaizan’s historical novel, but due to the violent nature of the ending, the plans were scrapped and “The Sword of Doom” was left with an abrupt ending.
- This is the sixth film to feature Tatsuya Nakadai and Toshiro Mifune on screen together.
- This film marks the first collaboration between star Tatsuya Nakadai, and director Kihachi Okamoto.