The Sword of Doom

(1966) director Kihachi Okamoto
viewed: 07/10/10 at Viz Cinema, SF, CA

It wasn’t until I looked in the newspaper that I happened to notice that one of the best samurai films, a personal favorite, The Sword of Doom, was playing as a double feature at the new Japantown movie theater Viz Cinema, which I had never been to, nor even knew exactly where it was.  In fact, it was playing with Kill! (1968), another excellent samurai film also directed by Kihachi Okamoto and playing as part of a series of samurai films both old and new at the Japan-oriented theater.  Viz opened only a year or two ago (I lose track) and shows largely a lot of modern Japanese films that don’t get imported by other means plus a lot of anime.  A friend of mine who’s a big anime aficionado had been there and described it to me but I’d never been there.  But the opportunity to see this great movie on film on the big screen…too good to pass up!

The Sword of Doom is an immensely stylish, striking film.  From it’s opening sequence, in which an old man is cut down for no good reason by the ruthless samurai, Ryunosuke Tsukue, aspects of the film’s visual style are apparent.  Ryunosuke’s enormous hat obscures his face, but it also is used to frame shots, from close-ups to medium shots.  As will recur with great profundity in the final battle sequence, in which the walls and doors of the geisha house burn and are torn to shreds, Okamoto used many physical elements to create each image’s framing.  And some of these appear rapidly through action-packed cuts, while others linger for more steady durations.  The whole of the film is a visual pleasure.

But it’s not just the visual aesthetics that make The Sword of Doom such a masterpiece.  It tells the story of a potentially insane, near serial killer, of a samurai, who has little emotion other than wild-eyed blankness, who kills without morals or meaning.  That the protagonist is more anti-hero and yet is not utterly unsympathetic demonstrates the emotional complexity that Okamoto achieves in this film.  It’s not a morally simple tale at all.  And the ending, which occurs during a violent battle sequence with a huge body count, which freezes on a frame of Ryunosuke’s twisted, terrified face, leaves an open-endedness to the story (which apparently was originally to be followed by more than one sequel), and leaves the viewer in a state of shock of sorts.

It’s an amazing movie, one of my favorites that I’ve seen of the samurai genre.  I was disappointed that the Viz theater wasn’t actually showing the film as a double feature with Kill!, rather ushering us out to potentially buy another ticket for the second film. It helped me a bit because I’d sat through another double feature the day before and was feeling that it would have been truly indulgent to sit through another one.  In the end, the need to pay for and wait for the second feature was enough to usher me all the way out of the theater and on to other things.

But I have to say, it was great to get to see The Sword of Doom again, and actually on the big screen.  I will be quite tempted to go back and catch another samurai film from their mini-festival before it ends.  It’s not a bad little place, this Viz theater.

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