The Sword of Doom is directed by Kihachi Okamato and originally released in 1966. It had a early Criterion DVD release (Spine #280), but is slated for a BluRay release on January 6th, 2015. Okamato has two other films in the collection: Kill! as Spine #213 and Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo, which is Vol. 20 in the Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman box set.
Ryunosuke Tsukue is a talented swordsman with evil intent. Through his violent actions, vendettas are formed that never faze his nature, but lead him to battle for his soulless existence.
This is possibly one of the most violent films there has ever been, not only on a visually level, but in its assault on the viewer’s mental perception. Ryunosuke is a malicious man who lacks any sense of remorse and, at multiple points, reaches a level that begs comparison to the most ruthless villains in the history of cinema. Nearly every other character serves as a stepping stone in Ryu’s journey into madness. The film pursues his journey sadistically, unrelentingly. Ryunosuke is hauntingly muted. It is better not to elaborate on certain points because witnessing them through Ryu defines the shrill and violent experience that sets this film apart from others.
I love any Samurai film and the fight sequences here are solidly choreographed. They are not overly complex or over-dramatized (most of the Samurai only have one focused move). And Okamoto’s choice to present the action sequences in this manner keeps the moral conflict in the foreground. With that said, the cinematography in this film is ahead of its time. The snow battle stands as an iconic and sharply realized milestone in film history (I’m sure somewhere, Tarantino references this as one of his inspirations).
But, my favorite part of the film is its title: “The Sword of Doom.” Okamato immediately calls our attention to an inanimate object. Even before the film starts, Okamato is stating that the sword is the soul of its carrier. This is all punctuated in the film’s final sequences (after one of the top ten battle scenes of all time) when the last stalled image is that of the sword swinging trough the air.
This was one of the early releases on Criterion and it lacks in extras. The restoration certainly gives the film a cleaner look. There is a brief film essay by critic Geoffery O’Brien, which is a fun read. The only other supplements are a trailer and audio commentary from a film historian. This is all the DVD release has to offer and it does not look like they have plans to do much more for the BluRay release, except for a high definition restoration and an “uncompressed monaural” soundtrack. Man, I wish there was more.
The Sword of Doom is a disturbing, sadistic trip. The sword play is enthralling and brings about some of the best fight sequences you will ever witness (especially the last battle). But, the supplements are some of the most disappointing in the Criterion Collection. Another one you can catch with your Hulu subscription.
Criterion Grade: D-
Film Grade: A-