The Sword of Doom (1966)

The film opens as an old man and his daughter are crossing the hills, almost at the end of their long journey. When the girl rushes off to get water, her grandfather is brutally cut down by a samurai, without provocation. This samurai is Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai). We follow him back to his village where he is to take on a rival for the position of leader of their swordfighting school. When his opponent’s wife, Ohama (Michiyo Aratama), pleads with him to let her husband win, Ryunosuke arranges to meet her late at night at a mill where he then rapes her. Spurred on by his anger, his opponent, Bunnojo Utsuki (Ichiro Nakaya), lunges at Ryunosuke after their bout ends. Ryunosuke, an unmatched skill with the sword, counters, striking a fatal blow. He leaves town, cutting down a number of men who attempt to take revenge for the slaying of their leader. Two years later the action has moved to Edo, where Ryunosuke is now living with Ohama. He joins a group of mercenaries, a perfect fit for someone lacking any moral compass. Ryunosuke continues in his violent path, caring little for those around him, and killing without compunction. Later, he is troubled by visions of those he has killed, striking out in a blind rage as the ghosts of his past come back to haunt him.

“The Sword of Doom” is based on the book “The Great Bodhisattva Pass” by Kaizan Nakazato, previously adapted into works of the same title as the novel. The screenplay is by Shinobu Hashimoto, who worked on a number of Akira Kurosawa films including “Rashomon” and “The Hidden Fortress”. Director Kihachi Okamoto brings forth the deadly threat of the period with expert use of long, still takes broken by flashes of violent action sequences. The opening scene, with its shock death early on shows the audience that death and violence lurk constantly behind the seemingly calm surface of rules and ritual commonly assumed of the period. The duel between Ryunosuke Tsukue and Bunnojo Utsuki is a masterclass in creating tension; as the two face off against each other every tiny movement becomes cause for concern. This is achieved through firstly setting up both characters as a serious threat. The audience is more than aware that either could easily kill the other and most probably will. The soundtrack throughout, with the clack of bokken breaking the silences, perfectly captures this sense of dread, making you aware of the frailty of human life and how quickly it can be snatched away. Nakadai’s Ryunosuke is a heartless anti-hero, compelling yet hard to feel any remorse for. The rest of the cast act as a perfect foil for him, reflecting the evil in his own heart by their own purity of purpose and display of emotional depth. Yuzo Kayama plays Hyoma Utsuki, the brother of the fallen duellist and intent on revenge. Michiyo Aratama, as Ryunosuke’s unwilling wife, offers an insight into the struggles of women in this period characterised by violence and an almost pathological reverence for the “way of the sword”. Toshiro Mifune is well-cast as Toranosuke Shimada, the leader of a swordfighting school and a match in skill to Ryunosuke. Yoko Naito plays Omatsu, who having lost her grandfather at the beginning of the film, is part of a major subplot as she attempts to first win over the local lord, and later finds employment as a courtesan, coming face to face with her grandfather’s killer at the film’s climax.

“The Sword of Doom” portrays the ultimate anti-hero in Ryunosuke Tsukue. He is a man with few virtues other than his ultimate skill with a katana. There is a repeated line in the film about the reflection of a man’s soul in his sword. This link is perhaps the key to understanding the message of the film. Ryunosuke has poured every part of himself into his sword, he is no longer capable of compassion or empathy, to many extents he is the embodiment of a vengeful spirit, demonic in his dedication to swordfighting. His cold expression speaks to the emptiness at the heart of his character. By dedicating himself to the art of war, he has become the horror of war itself, with no room left in him for love, friendship, honour, mercy, or any other trait that might mark him as human. The final act of the film sees him crumble in completely, no longer able to hold himself together and becoming no more than his anger and swordsmanship. The final shot of the film sees his face contorted, having lost all humanity he is doomed to die or be endlessly tortured by what he has done.

Bullet Ballet (1998)

Goda arrives home from after-work drinks to find his girlfriend of 10 years has shot herself. The initial shock soon gives way to curiosity as he tries to uncover where she got the gun from. His search for understanding, both the mystery of the origin of the weapon, and the more ineffable reasons for her committing suicide. Goda is soon scouring gun enthusiast forums and makes his own firearm. He wanders through the dark underbelly of the city, far removed from his daily life at an advertising agency. His journey brings him into contact with Chisato, a member of a street gang who is engaged in her own struggle with self destruction.

Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo) writes, directs and stars in “Bullet Ballet”. The film is a clear development of his style from his earlier Tetsuo films, blending arthouse visuals with the brutality of an exploitation film. Shot on 16mm Black and White, with frenetic cuts, this film has more narrative structure and the editing is reigned in a little which helps make the film more comprehensible. Use of cuts to black, strobe lighting, and more can make for uncomfortable viewing, but these techniques are used sparingly and are rarely gratuitous. There are some stand-out examples of the power of film, in the rapid cuts between gunshots and scenes of war and destruction, that help the viewer sense the terrible power of this weapon. When a gun is aimed at a character in the film you are in no doubt about what the potential consequences would be. The film uses some fantastic locations, dark alleyways and abandoned buildings, and they are shot and directed to their best effect. Dripping water, the play of light and shadows, and the sense of a broken vision of what the city should be all create the perfect backdrop to the drama. The grime and decay is almost palpable through the screen. Tsukamoto, who also plays the lead character, is good as Goda, capturing the various emotions that Goda is going through: anger, sadness, fear. Kirina Mano gives a great performance as Chisato, tough with an underlying fragility. Many of the characters are ambiguous in nature and the film is far from a simple good versus evil tale; instead it feels like it is trying to unravel the morality of an incomprehensibly complex system that is largely dictated by uncontrollable feelings. The supporting cast all do a good job, the gang members are suitably menacing, almost the human embodiment of the dark city streets they inhabit.

Tsukamoto weaves a number of themes and ideas through the simple narrative creating a work that really wants to say something about the problems it addresses. For example, Goda’s obsession with the gun become a more general rumination on the problem of violence in society. Likewise, in attempting to work through his anger and upset at his girlfriend’s death, and fathom some reason for it, he is in fact representing a deeply felt angst in Japanese society about this issue. Suicide is a serious problem in Japan and the film has two characters that seem to have this self-destructive urge. While “Bullet Ballet” rightly shies away from giving any definitive solution to the problem, it does shine a light on it, questioning to what extent this self-destructive urge is perhaps part of a larger undercurrent of violence in society. Goda’s obsession with the gun as a solution to his anger and sense of powerlessness at the loss of his girlfriend shows that Goda is not above this descent into violence.

Party ‘Round the Globe (2017)

Two co-workers at a small electronics company travel together to a Paul McCartney concert at Tokyo Dome. One of the men is a humorous, talkative individual, the other sits in stoic silence, eyes fixed on the road. As the film progresses we cut back to the life of this quiet individual as he goes about his daily routine, watering plants, working at his monotonous job, listening to news stories of terror attacks and disasters, and thinking about a former life.

Written and directed by Hirofumi Watanabe the film has many hallmarks of an indie feature. Shot in black-and-white, long static camera takes. The film drags the audience into the tedium of the protagonists life. This is far from an easy watch as you almost begin to feel the oppressive weight of this on him. These lengthy sequences are broken up by the scenes of his car journey as his companion continues to ramble on about The Beatles, Bob Dylan, music fans, and other interconnected topics.

This is not a film that immediately endears itself to the audience. In fact it almost goes out of its way to do everything to turn you off watching. But there is something strangely intriguing about it. Perhaps because of the almost offensively boring nature of certain scenes it makes you think about what is happening. What is the significance of the radio stories to this man? What is it he wants from life? What does he feel about the concert he is driving to? What happened in his past? The film offers few answers but it does draw the character realistically enough that you can assume that there are answers. Certainly not for everyone, but if your patience allows and you are a fan of slow-burn human dramas with a humorous tinge, it is worth a watch.

Onibaba (1964)

The film begins with a hole, a deep, dark hole, that has existed (so we are told) forever. We then see to two soldiers, apparently fleeing a battle. The soldiers are killed by two women, who steal their armour and sell it on to a trader in stolen goods. These two women are our protagonists, surviving by selling stolen armour, fishing, and waiting for their son and husband to return from the war. When their neighbour, a man named Hachi, returns from the war, without her son, the mother is unhappy, believing him to be a coward. The young girl begins an affair with Hachi, visiting him each night in secret. Her mother-in-law, worried about losing the girl as well as her son attempts to end this relationship.

The story is told in quite a minimalist way, similar to a play, with a small cast of characters and each scene teaching us something about them, or advancing the plot in some way. I also found it very similar, in some regards, to a fairy-story, especially so in later scenes when there seems to be a fantastical element introduced. The film does not shy away from sex and violence, being the primary drivers of the plot, and there is also a lot of discussion about hell and sin that was interesting to see. The music at the beginning of the film I felt was a little out of place, with almost a jazz soundtrack playing, but it seems to get better as the film progresses. The acting from the leads was good, and there were some moments of incredible emotion. The cinematography was excellent, and the director really utilises the environment, swaying grasses, wet paddy fields, caves and rivers to emphasise what is going on, or how you should be feeling. There is a sense of desolation of the two women, living alone among a vast field of tall grass that perfectly captures without words their feelings of being left behind by the men who have gone to fight the war. This is further emphasised by the hole that is shown at the beginning of the film (a pit into which the women throw the bodies of soldiers they have killed). This is a fantastic metaphor for death, evil, and perhaps even a certain emptiness at the heart of humanity. We see the hole at the beginning, throughout, and in the final scene. I feel that using these more abstract techniques the film raises itself above others in the genre.

I found that the message of the film, and its take on sex, was surprisingly refreshing, as we see at the end of the film which offers a very different conclusion than you might expect. This is far from being a horror film in the modern sense, more of a psychological thriller, with the true ‘horror’ being in the behaviour of the characters. It offers a unique take on lust, sex, and war, and the feelings of loss and abandonment by those left behind in wartime. I would highly recommend this film, as it is a great example of somebody with a clear vision bringing it almost perfectly to the screen.

The Naked Island (1960)

 

The film tells the story of a family who live on an island in the Seto Inland Sea. The parents of two young boys must struggle to keep their crops watered. They travel to the mainland on a small boat to collect water and transport it back to the island, constantly returning to refill their buckets. We see that the soil on the island soaks up the water almost instantly and the dry summer makes this an interminable and unenviable task as they carry their heavy loads up the hill to their fields. This Sisyphean task comes to represent a more general fight for survival.

Director Kaneto Shindo creates a startlingly realistic portrait of rural farm life. At times the film feels more like a documentary as we watch the family carry out their duties. Most of the tension in the film comes from the constant struggle of the family to survive, a struggle that is brought into sharp relief in the final portion of the film when the elder son falls ill. The film moves at a relaxed pace and there is no dialogue or plot to speak of. The seasons change and the family endure. Their island seems at once to be both a paradise and a sort of purgatory where they must continually fight the parched earth to get anything to grow. It can be a chore to watch at times, with little recognizable drama, but in the end it is effective in portraying the simple lives of these people. There are a number of beautiful shots and the score manages to evoke a sense of tranquillity while at the same time foreshadowing the terrible events of the films conclusion.

“The Naked Island” is a film that sets out with a clear purpose to show the hardships encountered by those working the land. The island setting is perfect as it shows both the isolation of the family and lends a sense of danger as they are cut off from the rest of the world. The constant need for water comes to symbolise humanities wider struggle for survival against a hostile planet. Also interesting to note is that much of the film seems to portray events from the mother’s perspective. We can see the burden of her water buckets as a metaphor for the stresses placed on her as a woman, a wife and a mother. Overall, it is a great example of film-making from the era. There are many ways to analyse the story and various scenes, but it is also a fantastic window on the past.