Thursday, June 21, 2007

Sword of Doom

Normally you could safely assume an entry entitled "Sword of Doom" refers to some financial meltdown, but today we refer to a classic samurai film.

This week's theme of context requires at least one cultural entry, for there are few more dangerous minefields than context-free cultural misunderstandings. "Why can't they be more like us?" A universal plea, to be sure.

Since movies can offer an uncannily accurate window into a culture, let's consider a 1966 Japanese classic of the samurai genre, The Sword of Doom.

As those of you familiar with the genre might expect, Sword of Doom depicts tremendous violence. Most of the swordplay is highly stylized, but if seeing 20+ swordsmen cut down is not your cup of tea, you might decide to pass on the film. In a way, that would be a shame, for this film speaks not just to Japanese culture and history, but to universal themes of evil and revenge.

The movie stars the incomparable Tatsuya Nakadai as a heartless--some might even say sociopathic-- samurai who has mastered a non-standard, unorthodox style of kendo or fencing. Perhaps it is his unorthodox style, or his ruthlessness, or both, but he has been kicked out of his kendo school. This establishes him as a ronin, or masterless samurai--in our nomenclature, a lone wolf.

The movie is set in a time of social dissolution and turmoil, the early 1860s, when the feudal order which had held sway over Japan for over 200 years was breaking apart. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 restored social order by dissolving the Shogunate in favor of the Imperial household. (In practical terms, a ruling-class oligarchy was established.)

Thus later in the film, Nakadai's mistress bemoans his lack of standing, commenting that in earlier time, he would have had his own kendo school and they could have lived comfortably. Instead, Nakadai is forced to hire himself out as a political assassin for a pittance; he consoles himself by drinking prodigious quantities of sake (rice wine).

Early on, Nakadai dispatches an unarmed elderly man and shortly thereafter, an opponent in what was supposed to be a non-lethal match. (In exchange for her favors, he'd secretly agreed with his opponent's wife to throw the match. Alas, the cuckolded husband tried to dispatch him, forcing Nakadai to kill him.)

These unsavory scenes establish Nakadai as ruthless, amoral and maddeningly difficult to kill. Nonetheless, the outlines of his own unorthodox code of conduct are visible. The elderly man had been praying to be released from this life; overhearing the gent's plea to Buddha, Nakadai took it upon himself to grant the man's stated wish via his sword.

And Nakadai held to his bargain with the other samurai's wife, allowing the match to be a draw, until his opponent tried to kill him with an illegal move. But there is a karmic consequence of these needless killings, and a subplot of revenge is set in motion, building our anticipation of a classic showdown in the final reel.

But our expectations are foiled. I won't give away the ending, except to say it is not the one-on-one "good guy versus bad guy" showdown we are led to expect, but a harrowing melee in a burning Japanese house in which Nakadai takes on the entire clan who'd engaged him as a sword-for-hire.

Online sources say this "unsatisfying" ending results from the film originally being planned as the first of a trilogy. I respectfully submit that the filmaker designed this movie to stand on its own, and deliberately chose a very 1960s "anti-expectation" ending.

This final climatic sword battle--truly one of the great action sequences of world film, in my humble view--is unleashed by a betrayal (the clan tries to kill Nakadai) and a ghostly visit by Nakadai's victims, who haunt him to the edge of madness. One online reviewer scoffed at this haunting (shall we also then dismiss Shakespeare's Hamlet?), but ghosts (obake, spirits, etc.), animism and various superstitions are key elements of Japanese culture. That Nakadai's descent into madness begins with a haunting is essentially Japanese.

Those of you who are Japanese or who have lived in Japan for years may disagree, but I see this film as a critique of the Japanese reverence for mastery--an unplanned, subconscious critique or a conscious one, I can't say. Acting legend Toshiro Mifune plays the master of another kendo school, and in a meeting with Nakadai he proclaims that "The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword. Evil mind, evil sword."

For his part, the Nakadai character exclaims, "I trust only my sword in this world. When I fight, I have no family." That is, he has no loyalty to anyone but himself and his mastery of the sword. Mifune's comment--the sword is the soul--embodies the ideal of mastery; in Japan, masters of craft are revered as Living Masters.

Mifune is proclaiming a moral truism: if the heart is evil, so too will be the mastery. But Nakadai's character also expresses an ideal of mastery--that of one unbound from loyalty and obligation to anyone or anything but the mastery itself.

Perhaps the theme many Japanese viewers would identify is this: mastery without loyalty and duty is inherently unstable and ultimately dangerous.

In American Westerns, such as the 1960s Clint Eastwood films A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More (which were based on Kurosawa's samurai classics, Yojimbo and Sanjuro), the anti-hero is a higher-order hero, wreaking a justice which the orthodox lawman could not pursue. In this 1966 Japanese anti-hero classic, the Nakadai character is not a source of justice or righteous vengence, but a "loose cannon" who is dangerous to all around him, an uncontrollable force so evil that his own father wants him killed.

Can we view this film in a cultural vacuum, knowing nothing of Japan's history and culture? Of course we can; but without such context, key themes of the movie may well be indiscernible, just as much of Japan will remain hidden to the casual visitor.

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