THE SWORD OF DOOM (大菩薩峠) (THE GREAT BODHISATTVA PATH) (Kihachi Okamoto, 1966)
333 East 47th St. at First Ave.
Friday, February 5, $12, 7:00
Japan Society’s Monthly Classics series continues February 5 with the story of one of the screen’s most brutal antiheroes, a samurai you can’t help but root for despite his coldhearted brutality, a heartless killer called “a man from hell.” Based on Kaizan Nakazato’s forty-one-volume serial novel Dai-bosatsu Tōge, Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom, aka The Great Bodhisattva Pass, begins in 1860 with Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai) slaying an elderly Buddhist pilgrim (Ko Nishimura) apparently for no reason as the man visits a far-off mountain grave. Shortly before Ryunosuke is to battle Bunnojo Utsuki (Ichiro Nakaya) in a competition using unsharpened wooden swords, the man’s wife, Ohama (Michiyo Aratama), comes to him, begging for Ryunosuke to lose the match on purpose to save her family’s future. A master swordsman with an unorthodox style, Ryunosuke takes advantage of the situation in more ways than one. As emotionless as he is fearless, Ryunosuke is soon ambushed on a forest road, but killing, to him, comes natural, whether facing one man or dozens — or even hundreds. The only person he shows even the slightest respect for is Toranosuke Shimada (Toshirō Mifune), the instructor at a sword-fighting school. “We have rules concerning strangers,” Toranosuke tells him, but Ryunosuke plays by no rules. “The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword. Evil mind, evil sword,” Toranosuke adds, words that torment Ryunosuke, who tries to start a family in spite of his hard, detached demeanor. But regardless of circumstance, Ryunosuke continues on his bloody path, culminating in an unforgettable battle that is one of the finest of the jidaigeki genre.
The Sword of Doom boasts a memorable performance by Nakadai, the star of such other classics as Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri, Hiroshi Teshigara’s The Face of Another and Samurai Rebellion, and Okamoto’s Battle of Okinawa and Kill!, as well as many Akira Kurosawa films, including Yojimbo, Sanjuro, High and Low, and Ran. In The Sword of Doom he is reunited with Aratama, who played his wife in Okamoto’s masterpiece trilogy, The Human Condition. Nakadai is brilliant as Ryunosuke, able to win over the audience, riveting your attention even though he is portraying a horrible man who rejects all sympathy. Also contributing to the film’s relentless intensity are Hiroshi Murai’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, which features a beautiful sword fight in the snow and an exquisitely photographed scene in a claustrophobic mill, and Masaru Sato’s sparse but effective score. The Sword of Doom is a masterful tale of evil, of one man’s struggle with inner demons as he wanders through a changing world. The Monthly Classics series continues on April 1 with Kurosawa’s Stray Dog.