If there is one thing that has defined Kihachi Okamoto’s oeuvre, it is his experience in the second world war. This is not only evident in the stories he choose to portray – one third of his oeuvre consists of stories concerning the second world war, but also in the way he approached violence.
Kihachi Akamoto fitted perfectly in the wave of directors whose attitude towards violence was changing. These directors – of which Akamoto was one of the main proponents – aimed to show, beyond any heroism whatsoever, the real and irrational impact violence has on subjects. Akamoto realized his critical questioning of Bushido primarily in narratives like Samurai Assassin (1965), Sword of Doom (1966) and Kill! (1968). Today, we review Sword of Doom.
The narrative of Sword of Doom focuses on the life of Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai), an amoral samurai who follows his chosen path uncompromisingly, and his sword, which he wield in an unorthodox style called mumyo otonashi no kamae (form without sound or light). We first meet Ryunosoke when he kills an elderly pilgrim (Kinnozuke Takamatsu) after overhearing his prayer for a quick death. Returning to the fencing school of his father of which he is the young master, his ailing father (Ryosuke Kagawa) asks him to lose the fencing competition, which has a lot of stakes for his opponent Utsugi (Ichiro Nakaya), scheduled the following day. The same question is repeated by his opponent’s wife, Hama (Michiyo Aratama). He promises to lose if she obliges to have sex with him. Before the dual, her husband learns of the affair.
While the narrative itself is not that difficult to follow, it might be difficult for contemporary audiences – especially audiences who didn’t read the novels or are new to the era depicted here – to fully grasp the context that structures the narrative (narra-note 1). The brief evocation of historical events like the Sakashita incident, where 6 samurai tried to assassinate daimyo Andō Nobumasa, or the history of the formation of the shinsengumi (narra-note 2), may be disorienting for some, but, in the end, a lack of such knowledge will not diminish the enjoyment one can derive from this narrative. For some, it might even be a motivation to explore this highly interesting pre-Meiji period.
Ryunosuke’s narrative, beyond any historical context whatsoever, is a story about the subject’s death-drive and about the acceptance to follow that death-drive – and the destruction it causes – without compromise straight into the darkness of jouissance and the madness of the mind. The smiles that begin to appear on Ryunosuke face sensible underline his descent into mental madness, a descent eventually culminating in the confrontation with and an indulging in his own jouissance.
It is by following his chosen path, turning him at times into a demon or sometimes even into a potential Bodhisattva, that Ryunosuke – mesmerizingly portrayed by Tatsuya Nakadai – is able to carve his own destiny. This destiny – as is evident from the narrative, is intrinsically linked with his position within the symbolic structure. This link enables the spectator to sense how the symbolic register of the samurai defines the way a certain destiny, in this case Ryunosuke’s, can go. Furthermore, it does not take long for (Meiji) gender-politics to surface in the narrative in general and in the interactions between Hama and Ryunosuke in particular. While this is already sensible in Hama’s complete dependence on Ryunosuke as male subject, it is most clearly evoked when Ryunosuke, who keeps his own chosen path of the sword clear of any devilment in his own mind, blames his current position in society on the evilness of Hama as woman as such (narra-note 3).
The narrative space of Sword of Doom is brought to life with a wonderful blend of fixed and moving shots (Cine-note 1). This cinematographical blend, by its attention to geometry and its love for movement, serves exquisite composition after exquisite composition (Cine-note 2). And while these artistic shots can be experienced at many moments, in the framing of the mesmerizing landscapes or, by utilizing the geometry of traditional Japanese architecture, in interior-scenes for example, this mastery of the geometrical play is most evident in the framing of the sword-action sequences. By composing fixed shots and moving shots thoughtfully together, movement, i.e. the interplay between the swift strikes at various angles, the careful footwork, and the pausing of movement, is uncovered in its most artistic dimension, entangling the spectator in the tension and the restrained excitement of sword-fighting as such.
Sword of Doom is everything one can and should expect from a samurai narrative. By framing the beauty of movement and playing thoughtfully with geometry, Okamoto crafted a love-letter to the art of sword-fighting as such, but not without showing – and this is exquisitely revealed by Nakadai’s acting performance, that the road of one’s jouissance could lead to one’s destruction, physically as well as mentally. In short, Sword of Doom is a true classic that has withstood the test time.
Cine-note 1: Zoom-ins (linked with zoom-outs) are used with three purposes. When zoom-ins are used outside sword-fighting scenes, they aim to underline facial expressions as such or express a certain intimacy, and when zoom-ins are used within those scenes their purpose is to further express the tension specific to the act of sword-fighting.
Cine-note 2: When we use the signifier ‘composition’, we aim to underline the geometrical relationship between the various elements in the shot, i.e. the background, the characters, … etc.
Narra-note 1: As the last short of the narrative and some speech of Ryunosuke implies, the narrative should not have ended after one installment.
Narra-note 2: In relation to the formation of the shinsengumi, the following is important to know: Kiyokawa Hachirō formed the Rōshigumi. While it was funded by the Tokugawa regime and meant to protect the Tokugawa Shogun, he meant to side with the imperialists. On March 26, 1863, the Rōshigumi left for Kyoto. Among those who left were Kondo Isami, Hijikata Toshizo, Okita Soji, Inoue Genzaburō, Todo Heisuke, Harada Sanosuke, Nagakura Shinpachi. Serizawa Kamo, Niimi Nishiki, Hirayama Gorou, Hirama Juusuke, and Noguchi Kengi.
Once arrived in Kyoto, Kiyokawa ordered the Serizawa group to return to Edo. By then, he had already communicated to the imperialist that his Rōshigumi would only work for the Emperor. On hearing this news, thirteen members dissented, including Kondo and Serizawa, and formed the Shinsengumi in Kyoto. Some members returned to Edo and founded the Shinchōgumi.
Narra-note 3: Eventually it becomes clear that Hama and Ryunosuke are not formally married and that there are symbolically/formally speaking no strings attached to their ‘relationship’.