The set-up is a doozy. In an attempt to save her husband from humiliation, Ohama (Michiyo Aratama) begs the demented Ryunosuke to throw a demonstration fencing match. Ryunosuke agrees, but on one condition: Ohama sleep with him. She does, but when hubby Bunnojo (Ichirô Nakatani) finds out he not only promptly splits with his wife, he attempts to play hardball with Ryunosuke. One doesn’t take on a samurai of his stature lightly.
Needless to say, Bunnojo is simply no match for the peerless Ryunosuke. By striking him down, Ryunosuke sets in motion a course of events that leaves a vast trail of dead samurai. Initially paired romantically with Ohama (a poor match if there ever was one), Ryunosuke unites with a clan of rōnin known as the Shinsengumi. Historically, this was a short-lived law enforcement agency that operated in Japan in the 1860s. Ryunosuke finds himself stalked by the vengeful Hyoma Utsuki (Yuzo Kayama), the brother of Bunnojo, who aims to make Ryunosuke pay for his crime.
As an action epic, The Sword of Doom is a lean and mean creation from director Okamoto (working from an adapted screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto). His shot composition is brutally efficient, combining breathtaking long takes with hyperactive quick-cut montages. The blood flows heavily for a film of this period, with the impact of each sword strike palpably felt. The climactic swordfight is perhaps one of the most exciting and violent captured on film. The action sequences hold up nearly 50 years later. Above all the mayhem rides the superbly controlled Tatsuya Nakadai, whose impenetrably stoic performance conveys a convincing degree of pure evil-mindedness.
Hiroshi Murai’s cinematography is quite stark and high contrast, presented in a breathtaking transfer by The Criterion Collection. Struck from a 35mm fine-grain composite master (as explained in the Blu-ray booklet), the black-and-white imagery has a hyper-realistic look, almost like an old (but meticulously preserved) newsreel. The lossless LPCM 1.0 mono soundtrack is crisp, with an excellent balance of Masaru Satô’s score, dialogue, and often frenetic action-oriented sound effects.
The bonus feature is an audio commentary, recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2014, by film historian Stephen Prince. This is an informative, involving track that sheds a lot of a light on the creation of director Kihachi Okamoto’s brutal film. The Sword of Doom provides no easy answers to explain the madness exhibited by the baddest of samurai, Ryunosuke Tsukue, but it’s very easy to become enraptured by this uncompromising character study.