My dad asked me to watch and review three foreign language films (Japanese productions to be specific) because, “Each of them had a major influence on cinema, in their own unique way.” I don’t have a release date planned for these films, although I will review all of them before summer begins. I think it goes without saying that these reviews will be slightly different from my usual style, and they will most likely please the film fanatics in my audience more than anything (and there’s nothing wrong with that). The first of these movies is called The Sword of Doom. It is directed by Kihachi Okamoto and written by Shinobu Hashimoto who adapted the story from a novel. Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Michiyo Aratama, and Yuzo Kayama. Premise-An emotionally unstable samurai leads a life of murder, vengeance, and regret. Eventually, his past (and his sins) will catch up with him as he slowly descends into madness.
It’s going to be difficult for me to review this movie, considering I have to take into account both the culture of Japan (in the freaking 60’s!) and how film in general was done in the 60’s. If you catch a mistake or inconsistency (as I am not perfect), please tell me in the comments. What I do know was that at the time, spaghetti westerns were quite popular, with the most popular being The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966), followed by Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Independent film was also on the rise with releases like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) redefining what film could be about, and productions like Psycho pushing the envelope with what movies could get away with. The James Bond franchise also began in that decade with Dr. No in 1962, followed by From Russia with Love in ‘63 and Goldfinger in ‘64. The Sword of Doom was released in 1966. The novel was apparently a very popular hit among Japanese readers and it was ripe for a film adaptation (reminds me of the pre-production of The Martian). Under the stylistic direction of Okamoto, the film was made.
Rather than my usual formalist approach to analysis, this review is going to be a combination of both formalist (the film structure) and contextualist (what the film represents on a broader context). I have to begin with the look and feel of this movie (mise-en-scene if you will) and it is incredible! The Sword of Doom was shot in black and white, and while some think that black and white film limits the style (which is partially correct), if you have a talented director, a black and white film can look just as beautiful as a color film. The cinematography and lighting work incredibly well together and the shadows/silhouettes they create is one of the best film-noir I have seen (and I watched all of the black and white Kubrick films)! The musical score is intense and the acting is pretty dang exceptional! If you were expecting excellent choreography in a movie about samurai, then you will be very pleased to hear that the fight choreography is spectacular. Chuck Norris would be proud! Many of the swordplay scenes are shot in one take and because the actors are professionals it looks stunningly realistic! The characters (both decent and clichéd) are all physiologically explored and that is what gives this movie its edge, the psyche of the characters. Ryunosuke (the villain), Hama (the love interest), and many of the others are given much dialog that explains what they are thinking and how calculated they are. The climax is also outstanding. During that final battle, Ryunosuke’s mind clashes with his past sins and as he fights, you can see him slip further into insanity.
Although I do recognize this film as a work of art (mostly because it broadened the horizon of film), but I also recognize that it has a few problems. While most of the dialog is fine, quite a bit of it (especially in the first 30 minutes) is very exposition heavy, and those lines are not delivered very subtly. The actual ending of the movie left quite a few subplots and character archs open, and one of those subplots was supposed to end with a duel, so that was disappointing. This is going to be hard to explain, but the love interest character I ultimately found to be a pretty atrocious character. In Japanese culture, women are not treated with as much equality or respect as they are in Western culture. The things Hama does could possibly offend you (especially if you are a woman), but you have to realize that it is a cultural thing. In fact, you could learn a lot about Japanese culture from watching this movie, and analyzing what is important to the characters (e.g. honor, family, skill with a sword, etc.).
My dad tells me that this film changed cinema because it made the main character the villain! That is true because Ryunosuke is a very evil man, and yet there is no real “hero” of the story. Even The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly had the hero (Clint Eastwood) be the main character, even though his character was introduced last. Overall, I enjoyed The Sword of Doom. It is thrilling, impeccably well-shot, and a notable influence on cinema. It may not be a film for everyone, but it’s a masterpiece nonetheless. The Sword of Doom gets Guy’s Guru Grade of an A-.
On a side note: R.I.P. Alan Rickman and David Bowie. Your contributions to the fields of film and music will never be forgotten (and for dang good reasons!).