I opened up a new topic on this film, because I find it criminally neglected, and hope to open up a longer discussion about it and that some of you will watch it (if you haven't already).
Where to start with this one...
As I was wondering what to watch this morning and saw The Criterion Edition DVD of Kihachi Okamoto's "The Sword of Doom" on my shelf, I thought of watching it after a silent short of Wladyslaw Starewicz as a sort of light entertainment. Not expecting much, I put it in my DVD player and prepared to relax for the coming two hours. When I had seen a copy of this DVD in my local library a week ago, I had never heard anything of the director I remembered, and the back cover that spoke of lots of violence and blood, made me expect an exploitation film in the vein of a Seijun Suzuki only with Samurais and in full color. So I was surprised and a bit disappointed when the film began in black and white. But I was soon to discover something else. The films black and white photography is a stunning example of the use of light I have seen in some 60s japanese films (e.g. Seijun Suzuki's Branded to Kill).
Shot in stark contrast, the film always seems a bit overexposed, creating an atmosphere in witch the viewer may already feel some of the pain of the characters, and the harshness of the period depicted, through his own constant effort of the eyes while watching. The characters strain and stress, the atmosphere's tautness is matched by the films style. The widescreen format is used to its fullest by cinematographer Hiroshi Murai, almost every frame a prime example of staging for camera, achieving awe-inspiring compositions which mirror the characters emotions and obsessions, always bringing the directors intentions to light in a most original way. The editing is meticulous, being always right on spot, and at its best not only enhancing the films atmosphere and flow, but deepening our understanding of the characters psychological profiles. This combination of camerawork and editing makes the film on a formal level one of the finest I've ever seen. But complementing this is an emotional richness that speaks of the directors own experience, and the life he witnessed during his time in the Army in the second World War. Being an assistant director to amongst others Mikio Naruse right after the war, we can witness Okamoto with "The Sword of Doom" already in possession not only of a full-fledged independent perspective on life itself, but also of a cinematic skill, only few directors were able to achieve and put to use in the history of cinema.
In an essay accompanying the DVD-edition, film-scholar Geoffrey O'Brien compares Okamoto to contemporaries like Seijun Suzuki and Akira Kurosawa, but places him under both, calling him only a very competent genre-director, as he fails to reach under the films surface and find a sense in the films undertaking besides its obvious merits, when in fact Okamoto with this film alone must be ranked as a humanist director on par with names like Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi. And with his clear moral standpoint he is still miles ahead of the formal brilliance and playful nihilistic stance of Seijun Suzuki's 60s films or other genre directors of this time. Whatever Suzukis merits (and those of his colleagues) on their own may be, their filmic rebellion was one against an established way of filmmaking, a rebellion against the restrictions made by studios that wanted traditional clear-cut products that would make a maximum profit. But Kihachi Okamoto, at least with "The Sword of Doom", isn't just rebelling against an industry, but against the society that could bring such an industry to existence. The film's subversive nature goes so far, that it reverses the assumed creative restrictions, in a way comparable to the "dogme"-filmmaking in the 90s. By (unvoluntarily) restricting himself, Okamoto arrives at a freedom of expression he couldn't have achieved better in any other way. A rebellion that doesn't need to rebell anymore because it has already achieved what it set out to do within the established framework. This may also explain why the politics and social circumstances in the film are only a background for the character, who isn't concerned with any of it. What Okamoto is aiming at exceeds society's borders by far, as his endeavour takes him to one of the most pressing existential problems, the questioning of the human soul.
The beauty of the sceneries and their formal rendering are thereby a powerful contrast to the cruelty and at times outright nihilism of the characters behaviour. The years presented in the film are the early 1860's in Japan and the events preceding the Meiji restoration in 1868 when the power of the Emperor was restored. These years of political turmoil are depicted as a gruesome period in which traditional bonds where slowly dissolving as it was hard to arrive at a steady existential and ideological orientation during an ever shifting environment, in which violence and poverty reigned on the streets.
At the beginning we are introduced to the main protagonist Ryunosuke Tsukue, played with startling intensity by Tatsuya Nakadai, who serves as an indicator for the contradictions and problems of the times. A vessel containing all that's wrong with society itself he is a psychotic figure who seems to bring upon his surroundings the wrath of fate itself. Right from the start he is torn between his desire and longing for an affiliation of sorts, a redemption of all his sins (or maybe even the worlds), and a feeling that he's already too much an outcome of his times, being unable to lay down his sword and change his life. He's at once an angel fallen to earth who's bringing about its destruction, and a human being deeply in conflict with himself, his instincts and emotions.
The tragic of the film and the character, and thus of its time, seems to be the unability to change, to do good when it is most needed, and the powerlessness of man in the face of a human society that is bringing about its own end. Throughout the film we see Ryunosuke struggle to preserve his humanity though it has been lost to him from the beginning. In this lies the main strength and humanity of what the film tries to achieve. The Struggle of man against his fate, no matter how hopeless it may seem, even while facing defeat, is what ultimately makes a person human. To let us experience this through a seemingly nihilistic character, confronting us with a bleak world, is a bold undertaking in which Okamoto succeeds in a magnificent way.
The film was initially planned and executed as the first installment in a much larger tale, and it is a huge loss that the sequels were never made. Nevertheless this film alone, with all its ambiguities and gaps, already stands firmly on its own, displaying all the features needed to establish it as a major work of art.