The Sword of Doom
Essay • Watch / Read
This is me reading my essay about the final frame of The Sword of Doom (1966).
This excellent samurai movie stars Tatsuya Nakadai
and is directed by Kihachi Okamoto.
The Sword of Doom: My Essay About the Final Frame
by William J. Meyer
Ryunosuke is, as the trailer for The Sword of Doom tells us, “the monstrous swordsman” who fights “using the silent form.”
The final frame of this morose samurai film from 1966 captures this monster mid-attack, and indeed he is now as silent as his sword-form, his teeth clenched at the center of a defiant sneer. Ryunosuke is smeared in the frame, the movie seizing Tatsuya Nakadai’s chilling performance— and refusing to let go. The ferocity of his madness is distilled into an unmoving streak, like an urgent brush stroke evocative of Ryunosuke’s cruelty.
Some might argue the freeze-frame ending of director Kihachi Okamoto’s film is an arrested moment, one that stops both time— and story— history— and narrative. But, this static image is an elliptical suggestion.
Yes, visually speaking, time has come to a standstill— and yes, the story of the killer Ryunosuke has frozen and will never thaw. But the moment seized is one of mid-action, an unbridled fury whose power is subjectively an eternal experience. It has begun, but it will never end— it is midway, caught on a threshold, and no less potent for being incomplete. As this action has no resolution, Ryunosuke‘s battle must continue.
But, what is this battle?
As the art of film editing juxtaposes frames and their meanings, one against another, a freeze-frame may halt a movie character’s psychological progression, but it’s as if every prior frame were yet running behind it— continuing in motion, unceasing— and all these previous frames are absorbed into the one now frozen, still playing, still acting, they all collide with the freeze-frame from behind.
And since The Sword of Doom’s freeze-frame occurs at the end, being the final image, the frame accumulates meaning and power from every frame that came before it— and so the entirety of the movie itself runs headlong, right into Ryunosuke‘s final glower.
Ten minutes before this capture of his brutality, Ryunosuke sat calmly in the brothel questioning Omatsu, the granddaughter of his first victim in the film, unaware of her identity. Omatsu remarks she sees a ghost behind him, but Ryunosuke denies any supernatural presence. He declares, “...there are no ghosts. I am more afraid of the living than the dead.” Yet, within minutes it is indeed the dead that assail him, through both memory and conscience, a conscience only now buckling under the weight of the nihilism Ryunosuke so casually hefted throughout the film.
The character’s self-protective cynicism drooped his head and his sword in a chilly, deceptively lethargic screen performance which marks one of Nakadai’s most famous.
Although Omatsu has opened the door for Ryunosuke to cross the threshold, leaving his oblivious egotism and stepping into a new self-aware culpability, it is the killer alone who must be the one to enter. Ryunosuke tells her, almost wistfully, that he can now hear the mountain winds of Daibosatsu Pass (die bo sa tsu), the location where he savagely murdered Omatsu’s grandfather.
This memory is the beginning of the end.
The Sword of Doom is adapted from a novel by Kaizan Nakazato, entitled The Great Bodhisattva Pass. A bodhisattva is a person described in Mahayana Buddhism as someone who can reach the state of nirvana, the enlightenment of paradise, but decides not to, out of compassion for those yet suffering. The bodhisattva remains behind to help and save others, postponing their own transcendence.
Incomplete at forty-one volumes, the story of The Great Bodhisattva Pass was unresolved upon the death of its author, Kaizan Nakazato.
Though sequels to the Okamoto film were planned, they were never made. The Sword of Doom is all we have of this particular adaptation. Even knowing that more was yet to come, it would be speculation to consider the film’s meaning beyond the borders of its running time. It is the only extant film in this unfinished series. This and this alone is the textual evidence offered for examination. For instance, if the plan was for Ryunosuke to unfreeze and resume his killing-spree, that can only be a non-diegetic fiction. It does not bear upon our consideration of the freeze-frame itself. Because it never happened.
What we have instead is a character literally in medias res— and he will never stop killing.
Now realizing who Omatsu is, Ryunosuke can see those he murdered throughout the film projected as shadows on the screens which surround him. So, he attacks. It’s all he knows. Violence.
The murderer hears the death-cries of his victims a second time. The first: as he forced them across the threshold, from this life to the next. The second: as the memory of them howl from beyond the grave. These death-cries have a strange companion, they are punctuated by a most innocuous sound— the gentle tinkling of bells— the very same carried by Ryunosuke‘s first victim in the film, Omatsu’s grandfather.
The jingle jangle of these bells remind me of something director Paul Schrader told actor Ethan Hawke during the making of their film First Reformed. As Hawke tells it,
“...a good movie starts when you walk out of the theater. It’s like you ring the bell. And this movie is trying to ring the bell, and the bell vibrates inside you.”
The grandfather’s bell, minutes from the ending of The Sword of Doom, takes part in awakening Ryunosuke to the violence and horror of his barbarous life. And it also signals the final moments of the film’s apocalyptic vision of this brutality, one which does not give the audience a resolute ending, but merely the beginning of an eternal struggle.
This story opens for the audience in the spring of 1860. Omatsu and her grandfather are crossing Daibosatsu Pass. As Omatsu fetches more water, grandfather prays to Buddha to die and be taken out of this life. He wishes to spare his granddaughter of what he perceives as the burden of his presence. Ryunosuke almost immediately offers him this release, but grandfather recoils in terror before his flashing blade. However, the old man cannot escape the monstrous swordsman. And Ryunosuke certainly does not suspect that the soft ring of those small, simple bells will come back to signal his descent into madness.
“The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword. Evil mind, evil sword.”
These words from master swordsman Toranosuke, played by the reliably stoic Toshiro Mifune, capture Ryunosuke‘s imagination later in the film. He can’t shake them. In fact, upon hearing these words, his egotistical faith in his abilities begins to waver. Until now, Ryunosuke’s trust in his supreme deadliness was the only foundation upon which he built his identity. The only constant. Now, a question dares to creep in.
I think what makes the words resonate even more with Ryunosuke is that they are not spoken directly to him, he is not under the assault of their wisdom, they are no sermon, no lesson offered from teacher to student. If that were so, he would merely deflect their potency— and strike back with deadly precision.
Instead, the Mifune character Toranosuke addresses another samurai, one he has just defeated. Ryunosuke is the witness, both to Toranosuke‘s prowess and his judgment. In this way, his guard is down, and so the words, they worm their way in.
As Ryunosuke stares at the tableau before him, like a primal creature gazing into space, one can imagine the question, “Is my sword evil?” finding fertile ground in his once impenetrable mind.
Here, it plants the seeds of his self-interrogation.
In the last minutes of the film, Ryunosuke prowls through the brothel, its nondescript rooms and corridors forming a maze of death, its walls and screens endlessly repeating like an ever-expanding Sierpiński carpet, a fractal of square architecture with no end in sight. Men appear, swords in hand. Real men, real swords. These corporeal samurai are as numberless as the rooms. They surround him. They hound him. They multiply. This maze overflows with foes.
They appear at first, much like the silhouetted memories, so perhaps, for all we know, some of them might be apparitions— animated and given life by Ryunosuke’s newfound guilt.
If so, are the many wounds they inflict on him also of the mind— and not the body?
Our monstrous swordsman follows no path to escape this maze, but instead struggles to break free of it by destroying its walls as easily as he cuts down its men. His frenzy to escape his conscience results in returning to his nihilist indulgences. He slices both the inanimate and the living— with the same unbridled violence. Then, the brothel catches fire.
Flame and blood. Stabbing and slicing. An ecstasy of sadism. The film gives us the ultimate One vs All sword battle. A veritable orgy as dozens of samurai descend on Ryunosuke, the camera slowly retreating, often framing him wide enough to allow for moments of unmoving power, each pause in the action ripe with the next strike, he is lit and framed to shape a beatific composition of repose, each moment carved right out of his inescapable mania.
These fixed moments, though not entirely static, prepare us for the final freeze. But then— their potential is released— and Ryunosuke‘s death-binge continues, one reeking of, so one imagines, smoke and evisceration.
Our samurai kills in an almost drunken abandon, his bitter laughter the only music— until seconds before the final frame with its frenzied beating of drums. Until then, the cries of death, the fire burning, the swords cutting, the swords dropping from flaccid hands— these sounds alone underscore the emotional and psychological gist of the viscera exploding before us.
The battle neither won nor lost, Ryunosuke finally reaches that terminal frame. It was waiting for him the entire time. As patient and as dispassionate as his character. Ryunosuke is not released by his rage, nor his guilt.
He is trapped in a never-ending cycle.
With the motion blur of the primal freeze-frame— and its dense, smoky, out of focus background— with his hair flying, his arms swinging, his sword slashing—
Ryunosuke is the deadliest insect ever caught in amber.
For this killer, additional notoriety will never manifest. And although his future does not exist for the audience, the freeze-frame ensures that he battles on— stuck fast to his nihilism— an eternity of murder— one wet with blood— forever dripping from his eponymous blade— the sword of doom.
Subscribe for free to this Substack Newsletter to receive new posts and support my work.