“Sword of Doom”: A Rebuttal
Two samurai are set to duel on the following day. One samurai has a family and if he wins he will become the new Instructor for the ruling family, an honor that will be passed down from father to son for generations. It ensures that his family will be taken care of indefinitely. The other samurai is a ronin, a masterless, wandering warrior with no loyalties. Since this is not a duel to the death he has nothing to gain and nothing to lose. The ronin is visited by the wife of the other samurai. She knows that the ronin is too skilled to be beaten by her husband so she goes to him, hopefully to persuade him to throw the fight. It would be the most honorable thing a warrior could do. But she does not yet realize with whom she is dealing.
“Sword of Doom” is based on an ancient Japanese adage, “an evil soul wields an evil sword.” The ronin is played by Tatsuya Nakadai, one of the biggest Japanese movie stars in his day, and he plays the sociopathic ronin with chilling authenticity. Looking into his dark, empty eyes is to come face to face with a believable, everyday evil that may be one of the greatest performances of it’s kind.
The wife bows down before this coiled rattlesnake of a man and pleads her case. She bows in the middle of the room, her face buried in the tatami mats, her hands placed before her, weeping for the future of her husband and her family. The ronin sits languidly, his back against a pillar, and from our vantage point in the room he disappears from sight. No furniture or decorations crowd the room, nothing to busy our attention. Just the woman. At first the framing seems odd until the full import of the scene sinks in. The ronin has disappeared because he might as well not even be in the room. The woman’s protestations of honor and kindness fall on deaf ears. This is Japanese mise-en-scene in it’s essence; the simplicity, the stark compositions, the reliance on framing to communicate information. “Sword of Doom” is full of these insights into character motivations and behavior through the use of the camera. In other words, it’s pure cinema.
The dialogue scenes aren’t the only ones to get the full cinematic treatment either. The fight scenes are some of the finest ever staged. From the camera to the choreography they are utterly enthralling and suitably violent. The ronin is a man who kills for pleasure and his reward is the spraying blood of his victims. And he is amply rewarded throughout the course of the story as his last threads of sanity slowly unravel. Toshiro Mifune appears in a small, wonderful cameo late in the film that sets the stage for the finale, when the ronin finally loses his last shred of humanity. The conclusion is as bloodthirsty as they come and culminates in one of the most explosive and unforgettable freeze frames in all of cinema.