THE SWORD OF DOOM (Kihachi Okamoto, 1966)

A fine work whose brilliant finale lifts up the whole, Kihachi Okamoto’s Dai-bosatsu tôge—literally, The Pass of the Boddhisattva—thematically revolves around the price exacted by responsibility and the burden of history. Those who classify the protagonist, Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai, excellent), as “evil” or “sociopathic” are being ridiculous: within the film the first adjective is applied to him by irresponsible sorts, including master swordsman-teacher Toranosuke Shimada (Toshirô Mifune, perfect), who fail to grasp the complexity of Tsukue’s moral predicament; the second adjective comes from reviewers anachronistically applying a currently fashionable concept back through time. The black-and-white film derives from Kaizan Nakazato’s popular novel whose three-decade serialization began in 1913.
     Meant to launch a trilogy, the film covers two years, beginning in 1862, during which Tsukue, a samurai deft with his sword, kills many individuals, mostly in either just retribution or self-defense. However, we first see him kill an old man praying at a Buddhist shrine on a mountain-top. What is this man’s prayer? To have his life ended so that he is no longer a burden to his granddaughter, who is off searching for water. Tsukue’s unswerving focus generates myopia, perhaps, but he is scarcely cold and evil; rather, he is duty-bound. Episodic, the film ends (in a freeze frame) in a bloodbath; by this time having been disgraced and, under an assumed identity, having joined a horde of assassins that is poised to turn on him, Tsukue crosses paths with the granddaughter from the first episode, a geisha house novice. Tsukue, who is by now also associated with the coming end of the Shogunate in 1868, strikes out at ghosts—shadows of those he has dispatched, which materialize as the assassins, whom he ferociously cuts down, one after the other.

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