Title: The Sword of Doom (Dai-bosatsu tôge)
Release Date: 1966
Length: 120 minutes
Director: Kihachi Okamoto
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Michiyo Aratama, Yuzo Kayama
I’m going to spoil the end of the movie a little ways down the page. It won’t detract from your enjoyment of the movie, though, I’m quite certain. It might even enhance your enjoyment, frankly, by avoiding some otherwise inevitable confusion. You’d be okay either way; I saw it the first time without knowing the end and I still enjoyed it despite my confusion.
A samurai film with Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai is like a Western with John Wayne and Lee Marvin: you don’t need to know any more about it to want to see it. Nakadai is both protagonist and villain and we are introduced to his character with a couple of murders and him taking advantage of a woman in desperate straits. He’s too good with his sword to be stopped by anyone seeking vengeance, but after he kills a the wronged husband in what was supposed to be a friendly competitive bout he’s thrown out of polite society.
He goes on the lam and ends up hiring out as a mercenary to a sort of political revolutionary group. The desperate woman he widowed in the duel goes with him and they end up having a child. We then switch to some scenes showing the granddaughter of the other murdered man and the thief that took her in after she was left alone in the world. Turns out they’re not minor characters after all? Nope, the girl then manages to fall for a young samurai who is studying the sword under the tutelage of Toshiro Mifune’s character. Mifune seems to be the only one who might be a match for Nakadai and his young protégé turns out to be the younger brother of… Look, it’s complicated. This isn’t even all the plot threads.
What ends up happening is that everything gets so convoluted that you look at the clock and start to wonder how on earth they’re going to wrap this up in the last 30 minutes. Well, spoiler time.
What makes this film so confusing is that it ends with Nakadai’s character in a freeze-frame while he’s mid-rampage through a burning inn. Nothing has been resolved with almost any of the plot threads (there’s another death or two I didn’t mention already) it’s just “The End”. And since the credits are at the beginning, it feels very, very abrupt. There’s no “to be continued” either, there’s no sequel, this is it. After having this experience the first time through, I did some quick research and found out that this was because the movie was supposed to be the first of (probably) three films. The film is actually the beginnings of an adaptation of one of the most famous Japanese novels ever and one of the longest (41 volumes!). The whole thing is actually about the fall of the shogunate as the ruling power in Japan and the rise of the Meiji Restoration that put the emperors back in power as much as it is about an evil swordsman under a curse or something.
So why is this still worth watching? Well, the acting is top-notch. Even the bit parts and character actors do solid work. The cinematography is beautiful and the story (such of it as we get) is interesting. Plus, it’s an interesting curiosity for cinema buffs; the first of a series where the rest of the series fails to be made. I’ll admit, this one might be one of the least accessible on the list, but I still think it’s one worth watching particularly if you like Japanese movies.