Sunday, February 13, 2011

Zen and Its Opposite: The Sword of Doom

Swords do not kill people, ronin (masterless samurai) do—a whole lot of people, in fact. Yet, some believe it is the inherent qualities of the sword (or the fighting style) that makes the swordsman, for good or for bad, in Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom, which screens this Friday as the conclusion of the Japan Society’s Zen & Its Opposite film series exploring the darker side of Zen Buddhism.

Stopping at a Buddhist shrine, an elderly pilgrim prays for death in a general “deliver me home” sort of way. Much to his surprise a stealthy ronin, answers his call, from behind and without mercy. Hardly compatible with the bushido code, it will lead to some bad karma for the killer, Ryunosuke Tsukue. While the old man’s murder has no apparent motive beyond Tsukue’s sociopathic tendencies, there will plenty of reason for his next killing. Tsukue has an exhibition bout, relatively meaningless for him but critical for his opponent, Bunnojo Utsuki, an aspiring master. However, Tsukue uses the circumstances to corrupt Utsuki’s wife, Ohama. In a fit of jealousy, Tsukue’s opponent turns their contest into a death match, giving Tsukue a perfectly valid excuse to kill.

Of course, Utsuki has many friends, whose bodies quickly litter the road out of town. Somehow though, Ohama becomes his common law wife, an arrangement that makes them both miserable. It is just an inkling of what fate has in store for Tsukue and those around him. Indeed, Tsukue is troubled by the matter of Utsuki’s younger brother, a student of Shimada, a master fencer so heavy he could only be played by Toshirō Mifune.

Doom might be considered high art cinema, but there is enough hack-and-slash action to make a fanboy swoon. Even for more upscale Jidaigeki (Edo era costume drama) enthusiasts, watching Mifune (in a relatively small part) and Tatsuya Nakadai lining up on opposites sides of some grand conflict is a pretty foolproof premise (coming after Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro, but before Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion). Intended as the first (and ultimately only) installment in a projected series of films adapting Kaizan Nakazato’s serial novel, Doom is somewhat notorious for its inconclusive freeze-frame ending. Still, what it lacks in closure it makes up for in manic bloodlust. Hinting at the supernatural, Okamoto’s visually stylish climax bears comparison with that of Welles’ Lady from Shanghai.

Nakadai plays Tsukue so stone-cold, he is practically the anti-Christ. Likewise, Mifune is all business as Shimada. In a welcome contrast, Yôko Naitô is believably sweet and endearing as Omatsu, the orphaned granddaughter of the ill-fated pilgrim. Adding memorable color and ambiguity, Kô Nishimura keeps viewers consistently off-balance as Omatsu’s mysterious “Uncle” Shichibei.

Frankly, Doom offers the best of both movie worlds, carrying the Janus Films/Criterion Collection seal of approval, while delivering several scenes of lone swordsmen standing amid mountains of their vanquished foes. What’s not to like? Thoroughly entertaining, Doom screens in all its black-and-white glory this Friday (2/18) at the Japan Society.