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By Mark Bell | January 18, 2015

Early on in film historian Stephen Prince’s commentary track for “Sword of Doom,” he notes that the movie is based on an epic Japanese novel from the early 20th century, one that was turned into a series of movies a few times. He points out that Kihachi Okamoto’s 1966 film was the shortest adaptation yet, and as a result, it isn’t always clear about many aspects of its plot, since the director assumed audiences already knew the basic story.

That explained a lot. I hadn’t heard of this film before requesting it for a review, and I admit I was interested because Toshiro Mifune is in it, and, hey, I’d watch Mifune read out of the phone book. While he received major billing for this film, though, his role as a master swordsman is much smaller than the lead, Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays a shiftless samurai blessed with an unorthodox fighting style but cursed with sociopathic homicidal tendencies.

Nakadai’s character flees town after having an affair with another swordsman’s wife in exchange for throwing his upcoming duel with him and then not only winning, but killing his opponent in the process. He is driven out of town, but not before leaving a trail of bodies behind him.

He ends up taking a mistress and fathering a child, but neither of those things bring even a flicker of emotion to his dead eyes. Nakadai plays the role with cold precision. His character later discovers that the younger brother of the man he killed is intent on hunting him down, and he runs across Mifune’s character, whose skills are greater than his own. Eventually his life descends into chaos and madness. I was bummed that Mifune’s character does not factor into the climax of the story. (Yes, he gives his usual brilliant performance.)

After listening to Prince’s commentary, I understood why I found the film a bit confusing and ultimately unsatisfying, despite its excellent cinematography and artfully staged fight scenes. His track is one of those scholarly “film class on a disc” discussions that Criterion is known for. If you enjoy those kinds of things — I do — you will appreciate how he, for example, dissects the editing of the opening scene and gives you historical context for the film; Criterion says it’s a new track. Between that and the new digital restoration of the film, you may want to upgrade from the previous DVD release.

Criterion is also known for the booklets they include in their releases, but the one in “Sword of Doom” is a fold-out pamphlet with a short essay by film critic Geoffrey O’Brien, who gives a lot more context around the story’s history as a classic novel that was adapted a few times before 1966.

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