Tatsuya Nakadai and Toshiro Mifune star in the story of a wandering samurai who exists in a maelstrom of violence. A gifted swordsman plying his craft during the turbulent final days of shogunate rule in Japan, Ryunosuke (Nakadai) kills without remorse or mercy. It is a way of life that ultimately leads to madness. Kihachi Okamoto's swordplay classic is the thrilling tale of a man who chooses to devote his life to evil.
If you're a big fan of samurai films and you haven't seen 'The Sword of Doom' yet, you're missing out. Most samurai films from Akira Kurosawa or Hiroshi Inagaki have an element where the main protagonist of the film is somewhat relatable and does good for those around them in some form or fashion. They're the samurais with the heart of gold, so to speak. But with Kihachi Okamoto's 'The Sword of Doom', that is not the case.
This particular samurai film is dark, violent, and very intense. Based on the serial novels of the same name, 'The Sword of Doom' follows an emotionless samurai named Ryunosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai). At the start of the film, we see Ryunosuke kill and elderly man who begs for it so that his young granddaughter can have a life of her own, rather than look after the old man. This is where we first see the cold steel glaze of Ryunosuke, as he kills the old man without any remorse or thought.
Soon after that encounter, Ryunosuke comes across a woman named Hama, who is the wife of another samurai who pleads with Ryunosuke to take it easy on her husband during a fencing tournament for fear that he'll lose his job if not successful. Ryunosuke accepts the plea, but only if Hama will sleep with him. Hama's hisband finds out, divorces her before the tournament, and tries to kill Ryunosuke during the tournament, but instead dies by Ryunosuke's sword.
After a few people try to take out Ryunosuke, he escapes and joins an outlaw gang along with Hama, who basically serves as his mistress now. Through Ryunosuke's journey with the gang, he kills tons of people, a lot of which are innocent people who are just simply in the way. And it's hear where the so called 'heart' of the story lies. This man, who is supposed to be our hero is actually not a hero.
In fact, he is a rather unlikable guy who kills without emotion or morals. And no matter who he kills, or how many people, he shows the same expression on his face, which is a blank stare, as if he has no soul. Meanwhile, Hama's brother-in-law sets out for vengeance on Ryunosuke and is trained by Shimada (Toshiro Mifune). Ryunosuke catches a glimpse of this master at work and begins to doubt his own skill, which is the only emotion we really ever see out of Ryunosuke.
This masterfully shot film showcases Nakadai's incredible performance as a silently chaotic maniac who shows no regret for his actions. Not to mention the ten-minute long sword fight and an abrupt ending that leaves you shouting at the screen, 'The Sword of Doom' is an iconic, brutal, yet beautiful look at a fighting nomad, who thinks the only thing in life is to kill.
Criterion's 'The Sword of Doom' comes with a good 1080p HD transfer presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio. According to the Criterion booklet inside the box, this video presentation is a digital transfer from the original 35mm composite fine-grain master. Most of the dirt, debris, scratches, and warps were manually removed. This image is a much improved transfer from the DVD version, however it still has some minor issues.
The detail is rather sharp throughout, revealing some fine closeups that show individual hairs and wrinkles along with some quality stitching in the costumes. At other times, the image looks a bit soft with some fluctuations in the depth and murkiness of the picture. There is a nice layer of grain throughout as well, but at times, it's a bit heavier than I'd like to see. There black, white, and gray levels are well balanced, although the image can be a bit bright at times. Image stability is consistent and there were no major issues with any aliasing or banding, leaving this video presentations with solid marks.
This release comes with a great Japanese 1.0 mono audio track with excellent English subtitles. There isn't a whole lot of depth to this mix, and while I applaud Criterion sticking to the original audio mix, I would like an option for at least a stereo or 5.1 mix to go along with the mono track. It's just more immersive than a 1.0 audio mix.
That being said, Criterion has done an excellent job delivering a well balanced audio track with crystal clear dialogue that is always easy to follow along with. There were no pops, cracks, hiss, or high end shrills to report either. Sound effects are full and are balanced and layered on the center channel with no major distortion to speak of. While I wish there was another audio option, this mono track is pretty outstanding.
Audio Commentary - This excellent commentary track by film historian Stephen Prince is quite a treat. This was recorded in 2014 for this particular release and has Prince discussing what director Kihachi Okamoto wanted to convey to his audiences along with some of the director's other film projects. He also talks about the actors, shooting style, as well as how Okamoto used Arkira Kurosawa's films as an influence.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 Mins.) - Trailer for the film.
Criterion Booklet - This booklet has information on the cast and crew as well as an essay by film critic Geoffrey O'Brien.
'The Sword of Doom' is an excellent yet dark film. It's my opinion that this is the most violent and sinister of the samurai films of the time period. It's shame that they didn't turn this into a series of films, which was originally planned, but that's probably why the ending still packs a powerful punch. Criterion has produced a great upgrade here, with a good audio and video presentation and a great audio commentary track. Highly recommended.