“Violence is the true enemy” is hardly a novel thesis for an action movie, but few delve as deeply into the suffocating emptiness of a life lived through war as The Sword of Doom, Kihachi Okamoto’s bleak, sadistic 1966 deconstruction of the archetype of the wandering swordsman. Watching it today, it’s hard not to take its devastating vision of the personal and societal cost of violence as an indictment of our present moment, as we sit trapped in the decaying body of a pandemic-stricken empire sustained this long only by virtue of carnage and exploitation. Okatamo’s lifelong antipathy toward the samurai code of Bushidō and his traumatic experiences in World War II remain relevant in a national landscape racked by police violence and unending war, his glassy-eyed protagonist the master swordsman Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai) a ghastly embodiment of martial tradition recognizable in every marching line of riot cops and giddily brutal police murder.
“The sword is the soul,” swordmaster Toranosuke Shimada (Toshiro Mifune) cautions the younger man when they meet. “Study the soul to know the sword. Evil mind, evil sword.” That Ryunosuke is a man without capacity for or interest in self-reflection is clear, but the world surrounding the two men suggests that it’s Shimada, not the cruel, unprincipled ronin he lectures, who fails to comprehend the true nature of evil’s connection to martial discipline. The very mechanisms by which their segment of society operates are infused with slow poison, destroying them and causing them to inflict harm on those around them whether they abide by their strictures or abuse those same rules as an excuse to shed blood and sow suffering for their own gratification. The result is corpses either way.
The Sword Is the Soul
“The blade itself incites to deeds of violence,” Homer tells us in The Odyssey, and Ryunosuke’s life contains nothing but that fatal instrument. We don’t see his childhood or adolescence, but we do see the strong cultural focus on tournaments and expositions of skill, the casual violence, the powerful dojos, the gangs of idle ronin that coagulate into the Shinsengumi — a kind of para-official secret police in service to the Shogunate — which surround him and inform his social standing and identity. Do men like Shimada hate Ryunosuke because he flouts the rules which govern the samurai caste, or because he reveals those rules for the aesthetic garnish to arbitrary violence that they are? By killing the “wrong” people at the “wrong” times he calls all samurai violence into question, exposing the caste to dangerous internal scrutiny and thus threatening the self-conception of its members.
If the sword is the soul, its range of possible actions narrows to a literal edge. If the sword reflects the soul, then the qualities of a samurai’s soul must be such that a weapon can embody them. Ryunosuke is not a perversion of the world the samurai fight to maintain, but the natural and inevitable outcome of a code meant to focus men’s minds wholly on where and when to do violence. Can we say, as day after day we watch our streets fill with black bodies gunned down by police, as our forever war in Afghanistan grinds inexorably onward and our endless chewing at the flanks of Africa and the Middle East continues, that our society’s martial traditions are so very different in their aim or outcome? The global pandemic has left many of us with little to do but exhaust ourselves at thankless jobs before coming home to watch the inevitable endgame of American militarism and social control play out on the nightly news. The ways in which our world churns out men like Ryunosuke become clearer with each passing day, each new incident of cruel, pointless violence.
House of Ghosts
In the film’s famous final sequence, Ryunosuke and his fellow Shinsengumi thugs gather for a night of leisure in a brothel reputed to be haunted. Ryunosuke, his confidence shaken after he sees Shimada in action, has just fled from a duel with a family member of one of his earlier victims. When he learns that the prostitute brought in to play music for him is in fact the daughter of the old man he casually cut down at the start of the story, he snaps. Why is this coincidental reminder of his own violent past so threatening to him after all this time? The film suggests that this is the callous swordsman reckoning with his own mortality. His own mistress has attempted to smother him, he has discovered his skills may not outstrip those of all other samurai, and now he realizes perhaps for the first time that his power in the world cuts both ways. The visions of his victims which drive him to madness in the brothel are spun from the devastating knowledge that someday he too will die, devoured and digested by the system he believed himself the master of.
A world organized on principles of hierarchical violence is a world overrun by such ghosts, and as Ryunosuke’s final deranged assault on the men around him shows, the tools of warrior culture provide no hope of escape from its strictures. That long rampage through the brothel does away with ideas like betterment through rivalry and redemptive violence, swapping a meaningful contest between equally matched combatants for a parade of faceless men jabbing and hacking at a PTSD-addled serial murderer as he suffers a complete breakdown. No one comes to stop Ryunosuke, to play the hero to his villain, because his world’s only answer to him is to wait until another version of him comes along and kills him. His consciousness of his atrocities can no more right them than our understanding of our past as Americans can undo Native genocide, the assassination of Civil Rights leaders, or chattel slavery.
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The battle Ryunosuke is fighting in the brothel, one of reflexive trauma and malformed emotional suffering channeled through traditions of socially commendable bloodshed, will outlast his body, stuck in time like the film’s closing shot: a freeze frame of the swordsman, bloodied and grimacing, swinging his blade at empty air. Murder is the only medium he knows in which he can express himself. The film takes its title not from any particular sword, but rather from the sword itself as a cultural artifact, a sort of Rosetta Stone for understanding what it means to build a world around mastery of killing. It may be difficult to watch, bleak and unsatisfying, proposing no answers for the problem it lays out, but in its hollow viciousness it’s hard not to see a suggestion that perhaps the entire haunted edifice of empire must be razed before anything new can take its place.