The Sword of Doom (1966), or The Geisha House Is On Fire

13 03 2009
This main character is pure evil!

This main character is pure evil!

Where is the source of human evil? Where do we find the inhumanity to inflict harm upon others, to use our power and will against another? Do we comprehend what we do, and if we do, just how much worse is knowing? These are the questions that plague us as we evolve ever-so incrementally. Some have found their answers in falsehoods, superstitions, and fantasy, while others have found them in the meager facts and scientific data we have uncovered about the other half of ourselves. It is still a quandary, however; a flickering flame whose only friend is shame and whose only witness is our collective conscience. Today’s film, The Sword of Doom, besets a devious character and questions him on his actions, and upon that interrogation he discovers something about the nature of evil that is so profound that we cannot even pause long enough to ask him, because he has already lost his sanity.

Ryunosuke Tsukue is a terrible man to behold. It is the Edo period in Japan, and Ryunosuke is a samurai enforcing the current shogunate with a strange and aggressive style of fighting. He is highly skilled but incredibly heartless, with a mistress and a child he could not care less about and a dirty job that makes him commit atrocities every time he walks out the door. The first time we see him he kills an old man for no reason whatsoever. Later on, in a non-lethal fencing duel, he coldly murders his opponent without so much as batting an eye. He performs unspeakable acts with no emotion whatsoever. He wields so much power but has no idiom, no reason to live within the boundaries of human laws, and because of perhaps his arrogance and his self-assured attitude he has no humanity. But that self-assured stance is tested as his life begins to crumble around him. During an assassination attempt for the shogunate, Ryunosuke meets his match for the very first time. The man he was sent to assassinate, Shimada Toranosuke, kills nearly two dozen men in the span of a minute and a half and walks away unharmed. Ryunosuke feels fear for perhaps the first time and cannot draw a blade against such an opponent. After this shameful incident, he finds that his mistress, who he treats about as coldly as he treats his victims, attempts to kill him in his sleep. He kills her for this offense, and runs away to join a group of fellow assassins at a nearby geisha house. At this geisha house, in his vulnerable mental state, he begins to see apparitions of those he has killed. It is becoming too much for Ryunosuke to live with himself. What will become of this broken and tattered samurai?

This is a spectacular movie, little seen but well worth the time it takes to seek it out. The subtleties and the intricacies of a life lived in such a manner are all here, and director Kihachi Okamoto should have been given more praise during his lifetime for this movie. It is a fascinating tale of human nature, and the dismal concept of looking into the mirror one day and realizing that you are a monster. Ryunosuke is a beast living in the skin of a man, and he does not deserve any pity, but his life must certainly be quite a burden to bear once he realizes what he has done.

The film simply looks great. It is a jidaigeki film, meaning that it is a period piece, and the sets are amazing. It is shot in black and white, the perfect accoutrement for a movie about a man’s duality. It is filmed with that historical epic sentiment that really gets the blood moving. The set pieces, the costumes, and the power and purpose of the line delivery really take you away to a romantic time of intrigue and adventure. The shots that Okamoto comes up with are so captivating; the assassination attempt, the duel, and the death of Ryunosuke’s mistress challenge all onlookers to take their eyes away. The last ten minutes of this movie will have you double-taking all the way to the credits!

And the performances here are great! It took just one false move to turn our main character Ryunosuke into a caricature and a joke. Luckily enough, Tatsuya Nakadai was perfect for the job. His piercing eyes belie a hatred for the entire human race, and he peers scornfully into every person he meets. It is a compelling performance that I hope becomes emblazoned into the backs of your heads when you witness it. Michiyo Aratama is Ryunosuke’s mistress Ohama, and she is a walking tragedy. You want something good for her even when you know that is not in the cards for the mistress of a heartless bastard. Her final moments were among the best of the film’s many great scenes. But the real shocker in this movie is Toshiro Mifune, who plays Shimada. By then already a superstar and one of the best Japanese actors of all time, Mifune makes a cameo here that stops the movie and throttles it for about five minutes. As Shimada, he is so fearsome and commanding, you almost feel bad for Ryunosuke when he lays eyes on him. I actually started shaking in my chair a little when I saw him decimate the twenty or so assassins in his way with nary a glance back. It is a definite highlight in this film, and while he is only in the film for about five minutes I would rent this for those five minutes alone.

All in all, a great time to be had for all. Period piece fans, classic drama fans, and Japanese film fans rejoice! I watched this totally on a whim and without any prior knowledge about the picture, and it really impressed me. So it just goes to show you that taking risks pays off every now and then in the world of cinema. I liked it a lot, and I think you will too. I give The Sword of Doom 9 haunted geisha houses out of 10! A high recommendation!

Tomorrow is a total surprise! Get ready for a “roller-coaster, thrill-a-minute experience at the movies”!