“The Sword of Doom”

24 September 2018 Comments Off on “The Sword of Doom”


Opens in a mountain pass. A dark stranger comes upon an old man, praying for death at a weathered shrine. His granddaughter is in the hills, listening for water. The stranger grants the old man his wish, and disappears into the land beyond the pass, where his father will tell him to learn to lose.
Ryunosuke Tsukue does not lose. He kills indiscriminately, his every move and gesture marking naked brutality. In battle he watches, sword loose, circling his opponent with infinite slowness. Other men whisper about his silent form. Ryunosuke waits, drawing sweat, letting his quarry come to him. His killing appears to be a vital function, not separate from other urges that make him be. His face is blank as he drinks sake at night; as alone, he strokes his sword in the mountains; as he looks down at his son. There is one scene in which he looks at his son. Sooner or later, every character in the narrative expresses a desire for him to die. He takes it in stride, asking only for more sake.
Tsukue’s behavior displays distinct patterns, but they seem not to come down to rules. It is perhaps the fact that he acts so completely without justification that makes him uniquely evil. For Tsukue, violence is a gut response. It comes naturally and has no higher meaning for him. With calm, tensile decisiveness, he takes what he wants as it comes to him: in every aspect of his life Tsukue is remorselessly direct. When his opponent’s wife agrees to trade sex for her husband’s victory, he pounces upon her without preliminaries, his manner cold and feral. The husband dies regardless, and when the wife begs Tsukue to take her in, he throws her off bodily, completely unmoved. There are no limits to what he will do, provided it is asked of him, and therein lies Ryunosuke Tsukue’s greatest fault: although other men may act just as brutally, he is portrayed as the most purely evil, simply because he wants nothing from the evil act itself. He is capable of anything at a moment’s touch, and without pleasure, or presence, or gain. This is what the film most fundamentally communicates, that what makes man inhuman is not really his acts of violence, but his inability to explain away the desire for them. If Tsukue had displayed a sadistic enjoyment of murder, as another character does in his attempted rape of a young girl, it would have been deplorable but understandable. If he wanted power, as do two clan leaders when one enlists him to assassinate the other, it would be entirely precedented for him to destroy his opponents. But the casualness with which Tsukue can advise someone to “just kill” an eavesdropping courtesan, the indifference with which he stabs to death the mother of his child, and his absolute lack of emotion – not only of tender feeling, but also of ferocity, fear, anger or arrogance – the stillness of his face except for the glitter of his hard, black eyes: this is what repulses everyone he encounters. It makes absolutely no difference to him whether someone lives or dies. This is unknown, incredible, and must therefore be buried, away from life, on top of the highest mountain.
Despite his ruthlessness, Ryunosuke is not an ugly character. Something about what makes him dangerous also makes it impossible to look away from him. Perhaps it is that he is only reacting to what the world presents to him, and that he is so pure, so forward, capable of doing anything at any time, but not with real intentional brutality. Contrary to how every other character denounces him, Tsukue’s real atrocity isn’t cruelty; it’s indifference. Every part of him is tailored to display this as clearly as possible: his sword-fighting form is silent, nonaggressive, sleek and lethal. “I push, he retreats; I retreat; he lowers his sword,” an opponent complains. Tsukue does not assert himself, because Tsukue really has no self. He is an aggregation of actions performed in response to others’ motivations. There is a sequence in which an old master slaughters dozens of assailants, leaving Tsukue standing only because he has moved not once in the entire scene. Ryunosuke has watched this bloodbath happen in the snow, perhaps realizing that the master’s movements are in direct counterpoint to his own: where he has fought off a similar onslaught earlier in the film, he has done so uncaringly, without the serene reluctance of the old master. Eyes shining with horrific intensity, Tsukue is left as always alone in the cold, perhaps thinking of the same words that will come back to him in an episode of madness: “The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword,” the master has said. But Tsukue does not have a soul.
The madness dances behind Ryunosuke’s eyes throughout the film, but only at the end is it fully revealed. He advises his companion to kill the eavesdropping courtesan, but the deed is left to him. When Tsukue simply tells the girl quite courteously, “Shout or run, and I’m afraid I must kill you. Stay as you are here until I leave,” she alerts him to a strange presence circling the room. Although he dismisses her anxiety at first, things begin taking shape for him in the low light, so that he unravels in a rare display of emotion. “There are no ghosts,” he tells the girl, “I’m more afraid of the living than the dead.” He has not yet appeared to be afraid of anything. In these few moments before insanity consumes him, Tsukue is almost beautiful. He describes to the courtesan a string of sounds that he can now hear, as if they are coming out of nowhere: “Mountain winds….They blow up from the valleys, shaking the green young leaves. Far beyond are mountain ranges…that fade far away into the clouds.” Thus ends one of Ryunosuke’s rare moments of luculence, when the girl unknowingly reveals that she is the granddaughter he left alive at the mountain pass he now hears. All trace of his exhausted candor leaves him, as with an indefinable emotion, perhaps close to terror, he cuts down an entire bamboo room, imagining that the sounds of people he has touched and killed are coming from behind the paper screens. This segues into carnage when a host of men attack him, for he has sided with a leader now dead. With animal fervor, displaying at last some definite desire, Tsukue cuts through anyone who approaches him. But now that he attacks, he has become vulnerable, sustaining mortal injuries that slow him down. And even in his wounded state he embraces newfound life, roaring with every hack of his sword, as the movie ends on his contorted face, arms raised to strike.
This is the first installment in a two-part series on the 1966 film “The Sword of Doom.” The second and final article will appear in print in a subsequent issue of Bilkent News and also at bilnews.bilkent.edu.tr/opinions