Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Sword of Doom (1966)

Sturdy and exciting historical pageant-cum-action drama that features one of the most unusual antiheroes I've yet seen in a samurai film: Instead of being curmudgeonly or stoic, the lead here (played by Tatsuya Nakadai, in an eerily even performance) is flat-out evil. As such, the film takes its cues from the lead character and gradually descends into an exhilarating strain of nihilism, where everyone is out to get everyone else and nobody gets out alive. What keeps it exhilarating rather than tedious is Toshiro Mifune in a small role. His character may be minor, but he's important -- he acts as the graceful yin to Nakadai's ruthless yang. He's the stabilizing force that keeps the film from being swallowed by Nakadai's darkness, and he even gets to deliver the film's thesis line (after an awesome sword fight, of course). That the (anti)hero finds himself stymied by Mifune's presence is inevitable; that he subsequently breaks down and devolves from sociopathy into psychopathy is appropriate. This leads into an astonishing climactic rampage, culminating in a stunning, abrupt freeze-frame that feels completely perfect (even if it's indicative of an unfinished product). The evocative black & white cinematography is just a beautiful topper to this compelling story.

Grade: B+


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