The Sword of Doom Blu-ray Review
If Kurosawa went dark...
Movies reviewSRP: £17.99
Kihachi Okamoto's The Sword of Doom is a dark counterpoint to the likes of Kurosawa's Sanjuro and Yojimbo, with a fierce performance from Tatsuya Nakadai.Reportedly based on one of the longest novels ever written, director Kihachi "Samurai Assassin" Okamoto's The Sword of Doom was one of several attempts to adapt it, and originally conceived as potentially part of a trilogy. It charts the exploits of a dark samurai warrior, Ryunosuke, who kills at will and seemingly believes in nothing more than his unparalleled skills with a sword. As his evil machinations result in a series of tragedies, the local samurai clan turn on him, which only leads to more dead bodies but forces him to fall in with a band of scheming ronin who are seeking to cause their own trouble between the clans, but when he spots another samurai warrior with stunning skills with a sword and impeccable honour to boot, his fearlessness starts to dissipate and doubt sets in; he wonders whether he may indeed be capable of being beaten.With the same cast, composer and screenwriter as many Kurosawa classics, The Sword of Doom very much feels like dark Kurosawa, with regular Kurosawa villain Nakadai on tremendous form as the psychopathic protagonist. He really carries the piece, with a fierce and unusual sword style and distinctive garb, as well as an increasingly crazed look behind his eyes. Whilst Kurosawa's go-to leading man, Toshiro Mifune has little more than an extended cameo (and a fabulous, snow-set action scene), it's an extremely important one, and, considering the number of times the two actors have met before in samurai battle, his presence works wonders to fuel the fear in the seemingly fearless villain. It's a captivating drama with some blistering action sequences and soulful tragedy of which Shakespeare - and indeed Kurosawa himself - would be proud.
Picture QualityCriterion previously remastered this back in 2014 for a 2015 Region A-locked Blu-ray release, affording the film a new HD digital scan based on the original 35mm camera negative, polished up as best as they can considering the vintage and, frankly, the clearly appalling state the negative was in. As such, it's a very faithful, frequently impressive presentation, but one which is certainly not without its glaring defects.
Over half a century on, this is the best the film has ever looked
The UK Region B-locked release from Criterion sports the exact same 1080p/AVC-encoded High Definition video presentation, framed in the movie's original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 widescreen. Right from the outset it's quite clearly a very variable piece, fluctuating wildly in the noise department, as exterior scenes seemingly literally battle the elements to survive the ant-like procession of noisy peppered across your screen. There are plenty of other shots that wow, however, boasting finely resolved skin textures and intricate detailing on close-ups and even longer shots. Contrast is fantastically balanced, and the shadow play gets keen observation here, with fluctuating black levels but excellent images nonetheless. Whilst a better source could have likely yielded better results, over half a century on, this is easily the best that the film has ever looked.
Sound QualityThe soundtrack is a faithful mono offering
The accompanying lossless Linear PCM Mono 1.0 track, in the movie's original Japanese, has been cleaned up impressively for Criterion, with the UK release again matching up to the preceding US counterpart. Whilst dialogue is afforded prioritisation across the front-dominated array, and further given excellent accompanying subtitles, and some decent atmopsherics constructed with observation of the howling winds and slashing blades, it's Masaru Sato's striking soundtrack which really marries up to the mood of the piece, taking you through the evil, the horror and the encroaching darkness, building tension where required and reflecting somberly upon the blood spilled. Overall it's a faithful mono offering and, whilst the vintage and limitations of the source preclude it from being genuine demo material, it is impressive nonetheless.
ExtrasCriterion serve up The Sword of Doom with the same Audio Commentary as on their US disc; film scholar Stephen Prince talks in detail about the story, the shoot, the similarities to the works of Kurosawa and the stars of this film. Whilst he can be a little dry and technical, his passion is in the detail, and there are some lovely tidbits of information to glean. There's also the original Trailer.
Blu-ray VerdictIt's a captivating drama with some blistering action sequences and soulful tragedy of which Kurosawa himself would be proud
Criterion dip back into their US back-catalogue to provide UK viewers with a Region-B locked copy of their Region-A locked 2015 disc of The Sword of Doom, boasting decently cleaned-up video and strong audio, as well as a solid commentary. Fans of Kurosawa should definitely consider checking out the flipside to the more moral code of his samurai films, with this dark anti-hero proving a compelling protagonist.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £17.99
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