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.

Tatara Samurai (2017)

Gosuke lives is a small mountain village known for its steel. His father inherits the position of Murage, or foreman of steel production: a title that will pass to Gosuke in time. However, Gosuke would rather leave the village to join Oda Nobunaga’s armies and prove his strength as a warrior. Following a catastrophic defeat Gosuke returns to the village where he is welcomed back. But there is danger lurking as the village is under threat and with the modern guns revolutionising warfare Gosuke must learn how best to defend his village and his heritage.

Yoshinari Nishikori who wrote and directed this historical drama does a good job with the story. Creating a few strong central characters, Gosuke, his noble friend Shinnosuke, and the salesman Yohei, the film’s story is small in scale but more impactful for it. The direction is good and the cinematography exceptionally beautiful. Costumes and set design evoke the period incredibly well and the village feels real and lived-in. Though the battle sequences are far from the main focus, they are well choreographed and performed. The best parts of the film are the steel making sections. Though essentially only showing the process of making steel, they are imbued with emotional and thematic depth that makes them fascinating to watch both on a technical and dramatic level.

The message of “Tatara Samurai” is one of appreciating life and respecting your heritage. The protagonist of the film begins by saying that he was never sure what “strength” truly entailed and the film deals with this theme. Strength is all too often conflated with violence and war, but there is another strength in courageous acts of defence and in the calm, daily grind of survival. A charmingly well-made samurai tale with beautiful cinematography and a novel take on the everyman hero.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972)

A thrilling pre-titles opening sequence effectively sums up what this series is about. We see a topless swordmistress take down a group of ninjas, blood spraying theatrically across her bared chest. A quick cut to Itto Ogami as he is hired to kill this woman. As the titles roll a couple of minutes in the filmmakers have essentially told you everything you need to know about what is to follow. This is not in any way a criticism, but praise. Film four in the popular series seems to have found the heart of the story and presents exactly what the audience has come to expect. In an interesting twist Daigoro, Itto’s son, wanders off and is discovered by a rival swordsman who threatens him. Realising the child has the Eyes of Death, due to his repeated contact with violence, he spares him. This time spent with Daigoro helps set up his character a little more as we see the toll his father’s choice has had on him. We also learn more about the woman from the beginning of the film from a tattoo artist who produced the artwork we see on her at the beginning.

Utilising voice-overs and characters talking about stories lends the film a story-book quality, as though this is a famous historical event or legend. This also helps us to see certain characters as archetypes and their struggles as universal. The character of O-Yuki (the female warrior Itto is hired to assassinate) is mysterious and poignant. She is a more sympathetic villain than in previous instalments and one worthy of Itto’s respect. Once again the film does not spare the bloodshed and in a thrilling scene in a small temple we see Itto dispatch of a group of ninjas, severing limbs, blood pouring out across the floor. Decapitations, lopped off arms, splitting skulls, every conceivable wound that could be inflicted with a blade is used in a violently creative series of action sequences. As might be expected there are a couple of scenes that are similar to previous instalments, with an onsen, a climactic battle, but the action and story are highly entertaining.

Itto Ogami’s legend has at this point grown so that he is known throughout the land. It is always hard with a long running series not to make the protagonist into some kind of superhero. Baby Cart in Peril does a good job of this by seeing him badly injured and struggling to maintain the absolute composure he shows in usual circumstances. By giving us an example of Daigoro in trouble we also see his second major weakness: that of protecting his son. This film also shows us again that while he is undoubtedly capable of callousness and not averse to killing, he does maintain an underlying code of honour in his behaviour.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (1972)

Itto Ogami and his son Daigoro continue their lonely journey through feudal Japan finding employment where they can and attempting to protect the helpless. In this third instalment of the series it seems the story has hit its stride. The pace seems a little slower than in the first two movies and the various incidents a little more episodic than before. We see Itto take on a fellow samurai, protect a young woman being forced into prostitution, meet an old enemy, take on an assassination mission, confront a vast force of soldiers, and again come face to face with his enemy the Yagyu clan. Much will be familiar to viewers of the earlier films, with rape, violence, swordplay and more of Itto and Daigoro’s farther-son interaction. There are a couple of scenes which set this film apart. One of these is the torture sequence, where Itto agrees to accept the punishment that should be meted out to the runaway prostitute. The special effects work is exceptional and you see the inner-strength that is driving him on through adversity as well as his absolute dedication to the way of the samurai and protecting who he sees as the wronged party.

The Lone Wolf and Cub films were all made in a short space of time with the same writers and director and as such it is perhaps easier to see them as one epic story rather than individual pieces. It is an episodic work that really needs to be appreciated as such. This film certainly keeps up the quality of the first two while settling into a familiar rhythm of theme, character and tone. The beginning of the film sees the two boarding a boat to travel downstream, while it ends with them walking off into the distance. While there is a somewhat definitive ending it is clear that this is intended as a continuation of and connection to the films before and after.

Another classic of the genre, the film features some of the clearest discourse on the samurai spirit as well as upping the ante on the action and violence in the final battle sequence. A worthy addition to this great series.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972)

The second instalment of this epic series sees our protagonist Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro hired for an assassination job by a clan who specialise in creating a special type of dye in a process only they know. The target is a man who plans to sell out their secret, thus undermining their profitable enterprise. Ogami must find the man who is being protected by three deadly warriors, each with a particular weapon. Ogami must also battle a group of female assassins who have been hired by the Yagyu to kill him.

This film picks up right where the last film left off and goes out of its way to top that films more eccentric elements. The introduction of colourful characters such as the female assassins and three warrior brothers helps distinguish this from the first film. Again there is no holding back when it comes to the violence and there is great creativity in how characters fight and day. Particularly amusing is the use of the baby-cart as a weapon, deadly straw hats, dancers, and just about anything that can be used to kill. There are a number of great action sequences, especially the one on a burning ship that tops anything in the first film. The plot this time around gets a little more complex with various factions, but it is a great strength of the film that at all times you are carried along with it and never confused by who is fighting who.

A hugely entertaining film. Just as with the first there are contemplative moments amongst the action and a certain poignancy to the situation of the two lead characters, but this is balanced perfectly with frenetic action. The addition of female assassins offered a great counter-point to a series that at times is less than respectful to its female characters. A sequel that stands on the shoulders of the first and exceeds it in almost every way.