This Japanese classic from the vaults will appeal mostly to certified fans of martial arts films, though there's a little to interest the average punter, too. It's labyrinthine plot will easily slip past inattentive viewers, so prepare to be tested.

For your edification, here's a much-abridged summary:

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Adhering to samurai movie tradition, Sword Of Doom follows the ill-fated Ryunosuke, a lone warrior with a heart of stone and vengeance on his mind. A married woman, Ohama, comes to him pleading for his help to save her husband's life in a forthcoming fencing contest. He promises nothing and seduces her instead, then faces the ire of her cuckolded husband in the next day's match, which also carries political import, as it is due to influence the power balance between noble clans in the area. The match goes from sporting event to full-on duel and Bunnojo, Ohama's husband, is slain by Ryonosuke, whose skill is superior to all in the domain.

Ryunosuke becomes progressively more embittered and vengeful and a number of killing sprees ensue. High on his list of targets is the brother of Ohama's husband, from whom he anticipates some kind of reprisal.

Having done away with his mistress, Ohama, who was getting altogether too demanding, we eventually follow him to Edo (then capital, later to be renamed Tokyo). Here, he is at the heart of the political tensions of the time, bringing us to a climax in which he is confronted with his enemies, and his mental state unravels completely.

The story doesn't entirely come off, the subplots appearing more as red herrings than integral to the action. The background of political unrest in the Tokugawa period also seems a little redundant to the story of Ryonosuke himself and the portrayal of his psychological state. However, the photographic attention to detail is superb, particularly in the first half when the action scenes are both minimal and minimalist and there is more exploration of the characters. The soundtrack, too, is sparse and atmospheric, consisting of naturalistic effects, like the sinister thumping of the mill wheel in the scene where Ryunosuke has his wicked way with Ohama.

While, for the first hour or so, the film operates by stealth, generating plenty of intrigue, unfortunately this is not sustained. The fighting gets more profuse without the reasons behind it being explained very clearly - it may well be the Samurai's raison d'etre and thus needs no explanation, but if that is the case why bother with such a detailed plot? Nonetheless, there are some good performances, particularly from Michiyo Aratama, as the ambivalent Ohama, and Tatsuya Nakadai gives a truly chilling performance as Ryunosuke.

Flawed, but stylish, Sword Of Doom is worth seeing if only for it's obvious contribution to recent cinema. It's easy to pick out scenes and details that have found their way into recent offerings, such as Kill Bill and Zatoichi - plenty to satisfy the anoraks amongst you.

Reviewed on: 02 Feb 2005
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Dark tale of a lone, deadly samurai.
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Paul Griffiths ****

Director: Kihachi Okamoto

Writer: Shinobu Hashinoto, based on the novel by Kaizan Nakazato

Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Yuzo Kayama, Michiyo Aratama, Toshiro Mifune, Yoko Naito, Tadao Nakamaru, Ichiro Nakaya

Year: 1966

Runtime: 119 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: Japan

Festivals:

Wild Japan 2006

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