:This article was first published at Talkbacker in Sept of 2014.
Tatsuya Nakadai can pierce your soul with just a look. It’s probably why he was the perfect candidate to play the character of “Ryunosuke Tsukue” from Sword of Doom. A Schroedinger’s Samurai who wants to live in two world’s at once, but in a society that won’t permit it. Understandably so, since it involves all their deaths.
Tatsuya Nakadai is the star of over one hundred and twenty films. A prominent theatrical actor and TV-dramatist. Doing voice work in a number of animated films including the as yet unreleased ‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya*. Even starring in just one foreign film the Italian spaghetti western TODAY WE KILL, TOMORROW WE DIE. A film I’ve only heard of recently.
*has been released in the meantime
SoD was directed by Kihachi Okamoto and written by Shinobu Hashimoto, who penned Rashomon, Ikiru and Seven Samurai. Made on the film borderlands where anti-hero’s were crashing the screens.
Ryunosuke strikes down an old man at the beginning who has unexpectedly been in his forward trajectory. He kills people that aren’t even an impediment as he is always moving toward something unknown. The old man prays to Buddha to take him away as to no longer be a burden for his granddaughter. Ryunosuke acting as a grimreaper in no official capacity becomes his poetry in death.
He takes another swing at a peddler along the same path but misses leaving the man wondering if he heard a cut through the air. He turns out to be a thief.
Ryunosuke is implored to take a dive in a match the next day. “It’s no disgrace to lose”. The sick man strategizes that the man he’s to lose to will become a fencing instructor of a very important school if he’s to win. It’s implied that Ryunosuke will essentially be at the pointy end of a spear if he should win since the lord will be doing the appointing of an prominent family.
He of course can’t be impressed upon to let the man win as he understands only cutting actions and displacing air, which happens to have living bodies in its wake.
The sister (Hama) of the man he’s to battle begs him to let him win. The only concession Ryunosuke agrees to is her virginity. There’s a milling machine in operation that intimates the coming act turning to rape. His sword drunken heavily on blood and his mind poisoned by no restraint. The blacks of the film make it seem as if he’s some unfurling bat. He takes a long route to violating all the restraints imposed on him. Murder, taking a woman’s chastity, anything in fact that society has deemed sacred.
Hama’s husband discovers that she was alone with him and gives her a letter of divorce. He insisted he was going to play by the rules but that was over and done with. Another incidence of Ryunosuke colliding with things that would have played out differently if he was honorable. The first with the old man wishing for death. The second with the paddler he missed that turned out to be a thief, and now with a man that might have walked away but is sure to die. In the match it happens that the judge was given a few winks and nods to declare the stand-off a draw. Bunnojo Utsugi (Hama’s brother and husband) comes at him and is sent propelling over the ring. Ryunosuke declares that his opponent has performed an illegal thrust and now lies dead outside, having been caught with an imperceptible to the eye whack on the head.
Despite this she warns him of an ambush in the forest of possibly forty men. But in the pantheon of super swordsmen along with Zatoichi and Itagi Ito (Lonewolf and Cub), forty don’t mean much. Ryunosuke insists that it was a fair match and that the men have no recourse for revenge. Again certain alignments in the stars, and patterns erupted leaving him technically in the right. But a society with an undercurrent of lies that it reinforces for the powerful brought it on themselves. Ryunosuke’s mind will not settle. He blames her for the death of Bunnojo “making it a violent match”, also telling her that his sword is possessed, by an evil woman. He smiles.
Later Ryunosuke having come into his own and finding suitable employment (you can take a guess as to what that would be) is confronted by Shimada (head of a school and played by Toshiro Mifune), who dispatches the men of the now assassin and mercenary. His face for the first time is invested with the possibility of real death. Shimada demands the men state their reasons insisting on boundaries. Also an apology which he never gets. Ryunosuke unlike before moving backwards in attack now moves slowly closer to Shimada invading a massacre not with his cuts but presence. Shimada’s words penetrate Ryunosuke. Up till now we’ve only had talk of swords as evil objects being the cause. In keeping with the theme they might resonate and send him even deeper into a black hole.
Ryunosuke’s father too, now a sick man, says “I don’t fully understand your sword form. You draw out your opponent and then in an unguarded moment you cruelly…And the cruelty doesn’t stop with your sword. It seems to have seeped into your mind and body. It frightens me”. He hopes for his son’s death as he possesses an evil sword that he should not have held. Not literally evil but there is an animistic allusion to weapons among other things.
Nakadai and Mifune both starred in other films together. Sanjuro, High and Low, Yojimbo and Samurai Rebellion. He even had a walk-through in Seven Samurai which made a mark in itself since his face glares like the sun. While he is not as famous as Mifune in the west, he is known. And he should have been better known.
He practices a swordstyle known as Mumyo otonashi no kamae – (form without sound or light) his stance takes on the quality of a freeze-frame as he sits motionless waiting to be acted upon. As if the world was in collision with him and he played no part in bringing it on. His stance is inviting and baiting. He hides under his straw hat even from himself seeing cyclopically through a grill in the front of it. A man in a cage open yet closed. Constrained Geisha like duck walking with robes to aid in that all stressing formal ties. His pose is also limp as his sword falls downward waiting.
Ryunosuke either wants to destroy the world he haunts or wants to die at the hands of a more powerful swordsmen as his programming which has gone astray dictates. A common theme in film and anime.
The screen he is drinking behind at the end is like his straw hat has fallen over him and he’s found himself in a prison of his own making. Shadows move about as he cuts through both real people and phantoms. It dissipates into a single still of madness caught in time. There was a sequel in the works that never materialized and the novels indicate that he indeed did survive. Of course that isn’t the point is it!
SoD sits on the taste-buds never quite having made out what it was. It’s influence was wide-ranging but it’s a mostly unknown film. It’s still-frame ending leaving plenty for interpretation whether intentional or not.
The film is derived from a great work called DAIBOSATSU TOGE (The pass of the Great Buddha) and was serialized in a newspaper in the early nineteen hundreds. Reaching forty one novels but left unfinished by Kaizan Nakazato who died in nineteen forty-four. The longest novel ever written in Japanese history and possibly the world.
It had a number of predecessors. Two films in 1935. One in 1957 called Souls in the Moonlight, and a trilogy known as Satan’s Sword in 1960. This incarnation was released in 1966. And it made sense the director Kihachi Okamoto put this film as a notch on his belt among Age of Assassins, Kill, and Samurai Assassin. A director known for his cynicism toward Japanese society.
If this had been the last Samurai film ever made it would have made a fitting end for the genre, but as always nostalgia perseveres and myth continues even at the end of the world.