Thursday, March 01, 2007

Sword of Doom (1966)

Shark eyed killer: "Mountain winds. They rise up from deep in the valleys, blowing up the young green leaves. Beyond, all you see are endless mountain ranges that fade far away into the clouds."
Wide-eyed damsel: I saw such a scene once at Daibosatsu Pass.
Shark-eyed killer: Daibosatsu Pass?
Wide-eyed damsel: Do you know the pass?
Shark-eyed killer: Very well.
This man is a real cold murdering son of bitch! His name is Ryunosuke Tsukue and he is ably played by Tatsuya Nakadai. He is a young master at a fencing school and has such a peculiar style of swordsmanship that even his own father, a man of some standing at the same dojo, cannot completely understand it. He is a passive fencer - one who fools his opponent into attacking, but then seizes the opponent's temporary vulnerability and cruelly exploits it. He likes to kill. He's crazy about it. He needs to kill. We will refer to him as the Shark-eyed killer.

What does the world look like in the mind of Shark-eyed Killer?

Well, for starters, he lacks compassion. During one of his “leisurely” strolls up toDaibosatsu Pass, he finds an old pilgrim praying at a shrine, asking Buddha to let him die so that he is not a burden on his young daughter, Omatsu (YĆ“ko Naito, aka Wide-eyed damsel). That’s all the provocation Shark-eyed Killer needs to swing into action. He is a proactive angel of death that is willing to answer the Merciful Buddha’s help line. Killing is a method of relaxation for Shark-eyed Killer.

He answers only to his own appetites. He had a match lined up against Bunnojo Utsuki – a man who, alongside Shark-eyed Killer, had been a student of Instructor Henmi – before Henmi expelled Shark-eyed Killer. Shark-eyed Killer’s father urged him to throw the match because it would be no dishonor for an expelled student to lose but if Bunnojo Utsuki were to lose, then he would no longer be the successor at Kogen Ittoryu school. Basically, it would be bad for everyone if Shark-eyed Killer won the match. But Shark-eyed Killer could care less.

When Bunnojo’s wife, Ohama, pays Shark-eyed Killer a call, he only agrees to throw the match after she forsakes her chastity. That agreement is apparently nullified when Bunnojo finds out and brings a passionate grudge to the match. The judge, upon realizing it is no longer a match, but a duel, calls it off, but Bunnojo tries an illegal tsuki thrust. Shark-eyed Killer parries and scores a fatal blow to the head. That earns him no friends at the dojo and essentially forces him to leave the town. Shark-eyed Killer could care less.The widowed Ohama tags along – though Shark-eyed Killer feels nor shows any pity for her and would simply walk away forever, except that she persistantly follows him. In peculiar Japanese fashion, she clings to the man who killed her husband because she, quite frankly, has nowhere else to go. The Princess Yufu did a similar thing in Samurai Banners when she became the concubine of the man that murdered her father. At first Ohama is resentful, but through the passage of time a pragmatic devotion/dependence develops. That doesn't quite happen in Sword of Doom, when Ohama's hatred toward Shark-eyed Killer sparks a fight that causes him to roll his dead eyes back and do what comes naturally.

He likes to do what comes naturally to him. If you had a relative in Japan that was killed around 1860-63, it is pretty likely that Shark-eyed Killer was the culprit. Such is the body count in this film.

Shark-eyed Killer goes to Edo and becomes an assassin. His travels take him by the dojo of Toranosuke Shimada (Toshiro Mifune). Shark-eyed Killer asks to become a pupil. Shimada responds that there are rules regarding strangers seeking instruction. He must face one of the students. Shark-eyed Killer asks to fight the man he over-heard a moment ago make the excellent doh attack.

“You can tell a doh attack just by listening?” Shimada says in a surprised voice.

As it happens, the man is Hyoma Utsuki, the younger brother to Bunnojo (the fellow that got divorced and killed on the same day). As the two square off, Shimada senses this is no ordinary fencer. He watches closely and is quick to end that match after the first blow. Hyoma protests, but Shimada says the stranger won with a kote attack.

Yet, he still refuses to instruct Shark-eyed Killer, who then challenges Shimada. But Shimada brushes off the request, saying slyly “I’m not good at doh attacks.”

Hyoma Utsuki is destined to avenge his brother, though he is simply no match for Shark-eyed Killer. He gets some sage advice from Shimada who tells the young fencer there is no way he can defeat Shark-eyed Killer. He tells Hyoma to stay in the dojo and practice the one move that will defeat Shark-eyed Killer: the tsuki thrust.

“Your brother probably tried it against him, too. But if it is done poorly, he'll turn it against you in one final blow. From now on, work only on how the tsuki thrust can defeat him.”

Shark-eyed Killer, though, will not be deprived from seeing Shimada’s skill. On a snowy night, later in the story, the assassin gang that Shark-eyed Killer is with mistakenly follows Shimada’s palanquin and tries to assassinate him, thinking it was somebody else. Shark-eyed Killer witnesses Shimada’s skill and is left trembling and speechless. Shocked, like a Great White that has been punched in the nose. Thus, it is possible to spook Shark-eyed Killer, but only if you are Toshiro Mifune.

Shimada’s no fool, and realizes that after his display, Shark-eyed Killer is doubting his own skill.

The film goes on to a curious non-conclusion conclusion. The story was based on a serialized novel by Kaizan Nakazato which started in 1913 and ran several decades. Evidentally Toho planned on following it up with subsequent films but those never materialized. As with Musashi and the 47 Ronin, this story has been made countless times, including a two film set by Inagaki in 1936. The bizarre finale in this version, ending in mid-slaughter, is really the most memorable thing about the picture, which is saying a lot as it has an excellent cast and is stylishly composed and directed by Kihachi Okamoto.Seriously, it seems that every shot would make a distinguished still photo. There is a lot of variation going on visually. When Shark-eyed Killer beds Utsugi's wife in the mill, Okamoto makes sure that the pounding mill hammers are in almost every frame, to the point of absurdity. Later, when Shark-eyed Killer is leaving the town after killing Utsugi, Okamoto films the forest so soft that you'd expect to come across some players doing A Midsummer Night's Dream. You don't of course. Instead you follow Shark-eyed Killer down the forest path - one of his leisurely walks, you might say - where he takes out dozens of men in a veritable gauntlet of relaxation. After the last man collapses, Okamoto's camera closes in on Shark-eyed Killer's face and we see what really gives him ecstacy - Hans Beckert style.Okamoto films the sword fight with Mifune's character, Shinada, in a completely different manner. First, the setting is no longer a misty forest scene, but a heavy snow - exaggerated by the use of zoom lenses. Shinada does not wallow in the pleasures of killing. Rather, he fights heroically. Okamoto's camera is therefore more direct and frantic (though the camera itself is not jerky). He films Shinada running back and forth, in the middle of the gang of assassins, methodically taking the men out with an awesome sense of command. At the end of the fight, far from showing Shinada having a satisfied orgasmic countenance, he is angry that he was forced to kill against his will. Shark-eyed Killer is deadly as hell, but he is not a magnificent man like Shinada.The final sequence becomes stagey and abstract. What starts out as a psychotic nightmare, in which shadows of Shark-eyed Killer's victims haunt him, next turns into an existential slaughter when Shark-eyed Killer (whom we should now simply call Batshit Crazy) starts lashing out at all the men trying to stop the mad man. It seems to go on forever. Just when you think Shark-eyed Killer might collapse and die... when he is using his katana as a find that he suddenly killed three more men. Until, the end.This film is bracing in its violence. There is some blood, though nothing like the geysers in later samurai pictures. The attitude of the main character is the real disturbing aspect - but that does not translate into the attitude of the picture. Shinada is a counter-balance to the soulless existence of Shark-eyed Killer, though, not having read the story, I am not sure how his character would have played out in subsequent films. This is not a film for everyone and does not have the carthartic release of other samurai films (and if you think it does, please seek help immediately), but it is a must for anyone who particularly enjoys the genre. To me, at least, it really marks the end of the middle stage of samurai films (from 1961's Yojimbo up to about 1966 or 67), before the gore got harder to clean up.

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