The Sword of Doom
Analysis of the 1966 movie The Sword of Doom,
originally published in two parts in Bilkent News between September and October 2018.
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.
Even in his active being, Ryunosuke is not human. In his final bout of insanity, he displays complete disregard for anything except the fight, for his engagement in fighting, which he clings to so intensely and with such little recognizable emotion that anything can be projected onto him. He laughs without sense as blood spurts out of his slashed legs. He will still respond to anyone who comes onto him, ready as ever to react with unmodulated ferocity. His impending death illustrates the truth of what the old master says of him: “Only the thrust, perhaps, can defeat him.” Only the thrust will make him move. His spiraling insanity is a response to the million deaths of his life being cast back into his face, pressing in on him from all sides so that he has to seek a fight. Every one of these moments have been used to give Tsukue selves – the monster, the murderer, a young master. It is his undoing to be made into a person. Without a soul, Tsukue is free.
One last point of interest is the irresolute end to which all other plotlines come once Ryunosuke dies. We see the life of Hyoma, who seeks revenge on Tsukue for killing his brother, intertwine with those of the young courtesan Omatsu, her guardian and the old master. All of them intend for Ryunosuke to die, but none manage to kill him. Had Hyoma, with his sword technique and reserved tenderness, both in natural contrast with Tsukue, succeeded in ending his enemy’s life, the film would take up the familiar tune of righteous vengeance on definite evil. It would be a moral story with moral satisfaction, bringing together Omatsu and Hyoma in fulfillment of another well-grounded trope. It would also lose all its depth and character, washing away everything that makes Ryunosuke as arresting as he is, making him a common villain where in fact he is anything but. The film leaves every plotline hanging but his, which finishes with almost victorious newness. There is no care for righteous anger, youthful innocence or conscious evolution in the face of Ryunosuke’s shivering confrontations. We are as purely focused on Tsukue’s transformation as he himself is clean of human need. The emphasis on one’s becoming less human than inhuman is yet another indication that the film concerns not morality, but purity: the question of how the soul resolves.
Is Ryunosuke amoral because he is insane? Does his inhumanity cause insanity, or is it that he is more sane than the others because he processes his actions without emotional inhibition, because what he does doesn’t need to be named or compartmentalized, because death can just be for him? To be more clear – is it the self, the soul, that prevents us from being indifferent? Is what is insane inhuman? Is it subhuman? What is more evil – the human and real, or the withdrawn and amoral? Is Ryunosuke Tsukue worse than his contemporaries? Is he really mad?Sitting in the chair of usual morality, we see immediately that insanity becomes an apt description of anything that is persistently and unjustifiably immoral. This is almost identical to Ryunosuke’s character, with the single distinction that he is not immoral but amoral, which brings with it the taste of conscious decision. Had Tsukue been unable to tell common goods from evils, or unable to comply with moral rules, he would more easily fit the general notion of insanity. Instead, he has absolutely no moral qualms, as he has no distinct motives, thoughts or desires. His sanity is doubtful to be sure, but his distinguishing trait is not madness, but rather a complete freedom from human engagement: “I, Ryunosuke Tsukue, trust only my sword in this world. When I fight, I have no family.” But perhaps this is unfair to Tsukue, who is after all cold but not animal. He has an attachment to the bamboo flute through his father, and takes in his opponent’s wife when she begs him. His strangeness comes from the way he turns, as if in the wind, in response to the breath of passing things: he kills the wife only when she tries to slay him, but his reaction to the attempt is completely unhesitating. “The cruelty does not stop with your sword,” his father says tiredly, with Ryunosuke at his bedside. “It’s seeped into your whole mind and body. It really frightens me.” The moralist would find in this the fulfilled prediction that when a man loses his virtues he ceases to be man, while before this corruption he is fallible but human, and can be redeemed. And indeed Tsukue’s actions seem to carry deep within the seeds of humanness, which his father says have been swallowed by the sword of doom.
In this respect we see also that to have moral principles is to be human and so to have a soul, all of which means that one will give predictable responses to the rules – and to the transgressions of the rules – of a specific community, which its moral code essentially intends to preserve. Clearly from a moral perspective it is by far the greater evil to be amoral, because one without morals cannot be redeemed by either the promise or withdrawal of virtue, redemption in this case being the reintegration into moral, regulated society of one’s actions and values. Furthermore, the truly amoral man is more threatening to the integrity of a community than the sparingly immoral one, because he responds neither to the fear of punishment nor to the sweetness of reward. He is secure enough in himself not to need the company of many, as Tsukue is in his mountain home. He can forgo the comfort of simple self-examination. The truly dangerous man has no self, and is therefore completely immune to the sight and words of others, as Tsukue is when implored to be merciful, when put down with shame.
A more symbolic evaluation of Tsukue might put him elsewhere in the close ring of good and evil. At the beginning of the film, the grandfather is praying for death before Tsukue appears and asks him to look to the west. As if moving with the force of a strange spirit, he brings the old man his wish. Ryunosuke Tsukue is an animated corpse, morally repulsive to his audience, and curiously like a new world’s being, singular, alone, in every nerve and bone Nietzsche’s Great Man, “colder, harder, less hesitating, and without fear of ‘opinion’; [lacking] the virtues that accompany respect and ‘respectability,’ and altogether everything that is the ‘virtue of the herd,’ [with] a solitude within him that is inaccessible to praise or blame.” It is easy to read him as anything because he is nothing, which makes him the single worst man in the world. He is the only man in the world who is no one and everyone. The film is built entirely on what he is and is not, and what he is becoming and might want to become. Pure Ryunosuke Tsukue and his inhuman heart.