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Violent and far less humanist than the contemporary films of Akira Kurosawa, The Sword of Doom (Dai-bosatsu toge) must have been a shocker upon its initial release but now seems perfectly in line with the string of Japanese moral isolationist films now available to Western viewers, particularly the elegiac yakuza films which lament the death of a code of honor. Here the traditional swordsman template is overturned by a main character who possesses all the raw material to make a hero but hasn't the judgmental capacity to implement his services in anything resembling a constructive fashion. This dichotomy would soon be pushed even further in the famous Lone Wolf and Cub series, whose skilled protagonist Itto Ogami is absolved of his astronomical body count only by virtue of the fact that he sticks to his own rules and is at least better than the mindless scum surrounding him. Here the great Mifune (who collaborated with this film's director, Kihachi Okamoto, on the more upbeat Red Lion) takes a backseat to Nakadai, a convincingly dogged lunatic whose descent into pure savagery could have fallen from the pages of a Shakespearean tragedy - but here deprived of its cathartic grisly release in the final moments. (Compare this to the superficially similar Throne of Blood, whose visceral climax is the opposite of the cliffhanger ending offered here.)
Shot in beautiful black and white scope, Sword of Doom captures all of its violence and moral ambiguity in an aesthetically stunning presentation; though Japanese cinema was about to enter a more frenzied and stylized stage, this 1966 production falls in line - at least in terms of pacing and presentation - with the Kurosawa films of the period, but though this shares the same screenwriter (Shinobu Hashimoto) as films like Seven Samurai, this nihilistic vision couldn't be further removed and falls squarely in the burgeoning cynicism and violence of mid-'60s cinema.
Despite the wealth of historical and cinematic context involved, Criterion's DVD is a fairly sparse affair containing a sparkling anamorphic widescreen transfer with new English subtitles (all of which are finally legible). As for extras, all you get is a liner notes essay by Geoffrey O'Brien offering some useful information about Japanese sword codes and the filmmaking climate of the period.
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by Nathaniel Thompson