The (Swords)Man in Black
Like some people, a lot of action adventure films look creaky, forced and foolish at fifty. But, playing to a packed house for the Japan Society “Monthly Classics,” The Sword of Doom/Daibosatsu Toge is one happy exception to not ageing well.
Even the abrupt mid-stream freeze frame ending is catchy if inconclusive, for at the time Kihachi Okamoto was supposed to go on to direct two continuations that were never even begun. The same forty-one-volume source novel, however, was later redone in two trilogies and one two-fer.
On widescreen the 35mm print contrasts beautiful b&w composition with brutal protracted swordplay in the silent snow and in an end Kyoto house of pleasure conflagration on a par with that of Harakiri. In a one-eighty reversal of his moral avenger in that latter and of his nice guy naïf in The Human Condition trilogy, Tatsuya Nakadai is now a ubiquitous nasty. Ryunosuke Tsukue aka Yoshida ranks as an emotionless unorthodox killing machine right up there with the Anton Chigurh of Javier Bardem. So riveting is his disgraced glassy-eyed sake-sodden samurai that even Toshiro Mifune is overshadowed as his teacher Toranosuke Shimada, another warrior whose sword mastery occasions Ryunosuke’s first doubts, the chink in confidence that may destroy him.
In black except for a distinctive outsize lampshade hat, for no reason he slices an elderly pilgrim (Ko Nishimura) at the very foot of a Buddhist mountaintop shrine. The two-hours-plus-a-minute covers 1860-63, when chaos gathered in the impending fall of the half-millennia-old shôgunate. Three years afterwards, he encounters the man’s unsuspecting granddaughter Omatsu (Yoko Naito), luckily just yards away from the killing and now an apprentice courtesan; they meet in a haunted pleasure-house room where the ghosts of his victims attack him, followed by the flesh-and-blood assassin thugs of the Shinsen Group with which he has been working.
Handsome, poker-facer, aloof, lethal with his unusual kogen style of lowering his gaze and his weapon while waiting for an opponent’s impatient first thrust, Ryunosuke has grown so perverted that his uneasy dying father (Ryosuke Kagawa) wishes and plans for his death. In yet another filmic portrayal of the country’s entire subjugation of women, Hama (Michiyo Aratama) pleads that he purposely lose a tournament match to her husband Bunnojo Utsuki (Ichiro Nakaya), in return for which.the rootless ruthless villain demands sexual favors. She accedes but is found out and divorced by the enraged husband who then seeks revenge in the sword contest but is instead killed by the ravisher. Alone in disgrace, the ex-wife/widow warns Ryunosuke of ambush from the slain man’s kin and begs to be allowed to accompany him away from there.
He earns a pittance as a hired sword, while he, she and now their baby live in poverty. From this point on the story spirals out of control -- maybe to be tidied and clarified in the intended sequels -- as various gangs battle for or against the dying government; slain Bunnojo’s unskilled younger brother Hyoma (Yuzo Kayama) seeks to avenge his sibling; even Hama tries to kill her mate while he sleeps off a drunk; and Omatsu’s Dutch uncle opposes a brothel madam and enlists a potential good husband for the semi-adopted young woman.
White subtitles are not infrequently lost against light backgrounds, and the viewer is lost in plot and character convolutions. Nevertheless, Ryunosuke’s blank-faced amorality and apparent insanity and the spirited swordplay and Nakadai’s athleticism move the viewer along. One-vs.-untold-many battles are well choreographed and, to any objections, are no more impossible than those accepted in cowboys-and-Indians and now in martial arts movies. And here, for a change, though ritualistic the samurai are realistic, honor and bushido chivalry thrown out the window.
(Released by the Criterion Collection; not rated by MPAA.)