"The sword is the soul," says master instructor Toshiro Mifune in Kihachi Okamoto's unheralded 1965 samurai classic The Sword Of Doom. "Evil mind, evil sword." Mifune refers to Tatsuya Nakadai, the film's black-hearted antihero, whose mirthless soul operates like a vacuum, projecting presence and absence at the same time. His eyes are dark and unyielding, and even the worst scoundrels find him totally inaccessible, consumed by an agenda that they can't quite fathom. When his blazing sword remorselessly slaughters dozens upon dozens of foes throughout a bloody three-year tour, it's with the apocalyptic quality of a Biblical reckoning, but without any moral agenda. Only in dreams does his conscience appear to haunt him, especially toward the film's end, when the ghosts of his past materialize and drive him to the brink of madness. Otherwise, he's a frighteningly nihilistic figure, killing for no purpose other than to continue killing.
Based on the popular newspaper serial "Daibosatsu Toge," which originated in 1913 and ran for three decades, The Sword Of Doom unfolds in a kind of shorthand that would be more easily followed by native audiences than neophytes. As critic Geoffrey O'Brien notes in his helpful essay in the DVD liner notes, "Okamoto's film might almost be called Famous Scenes From 'Daibosatsu Toge,' a series of set pieces content to skip over much connecting matter." The film opens with Nakadai running his sword through an elderly man on a mountain pass, in a senseless killing that will come back to haunt him later. When Michiyo Aratama, the wife of a weaker opponent he's due to meet in a duel, asks Nakadai to purposely throw the fight, he asks for her virtue in return, but after having his way with her in a dingy mill, he kills the hapless swordsman anyway. Vowing revenge, the dead man's brother (Yuzo Kayama) trains diligently under Mifune, who sets him to work on the one countermove that can stop Nakadai's deceptively passive style.
Set in the early 1860s, during the last days of shogunate rule, The Sword Of Doom swims with cultural and political references that are hard for unschooled Westerners to navigate, to say nothing of the numerous mini-allegiances that form and disband along with way. O'Brien's notes sort out some of the confusion, but the film is perhaps best appreciated as a beautifully stylized and kinetic portrait of evil, built around a grim figure who resembles nothing short of a demon in human form. The stunning finale offers a much different kind of showdown than the story promises—the film closes in a fury of bloody abstraction in which reality seems to melt into the metaphysical. In the end, Nakadai is eternally condemned to live by the sword.