From the start of the film, we're shown that Ryunosuke is not your average samurai. He just happens to be at a mountain top shrine at the moment an old man is praying for death and seems to delight in helping to answer the prayer. As far as that action goes, it could be argued that his first action was a just one. The Grandfather did seem sincere, but facing a man with a sword he didn't seem quite as ready as he claimed.
Ryunosuke is basically denounced by his own father, telling us what we've seen a glimpse of that his son is consumed by cruelty.He tells Ryunosuke, "I don't fully understand your sword form. You draw out your opponent. Then, in an unguarded moment, you cruelly...And the cruelty doesn't stop with your sword. It seems to have seeped into your mind and body. It frightens me." Once we actually see him with his sword it's very clear what his father meant. His "Kogen style" or "silent form" is deceptive. Hyoma, the brother out to avenge himself on Ryunosuke sums up the style, saying "I push, he retreats. I retreat, he lowers his sword. Seemingly off guard, yet alert. How can I defeat his form?"
His form confounds everyone he meets, it's strength being based on his opponents actions. It's a reactive style and we see this same quality in Ryunosuke many times. The first man he kills the grandfather, essentially asks him to do it, by praying for death. The second man he kills, Bunnojo Utsuki attempts to kill Ryunosuke first with an illegal tsuki thrust. He is only killed by Ryunosuke's parry, which could certainly be seen as self defense. Of course, it isn't quite that simple. Bunnojo resolved to make their match into a death match, when learning that Ryunosuke had slept with his wife, another situation which he caused reactively. Ohama, Bunnojo's wife begged Ryunosuke to have mercy and throw the match. To illustrate the gravity of her request, he tells her "A swordsman prizes his skill like a woman prizes her chastity. Would you surrender your chastity?" The comparison soon becomes a deal and he agrees to throw the match once he sleeps with her. However the attempted fatal strike from Bunnojo changes the deal, as he didn't agree to die. It's quite possible that not only was Bunnojo bothered by the infidelity, but by the idea that his wife would without his knowledge, beg his opponent to spare him. Bunnojo tells Ohama that he found peace with the idea of the match by resolving that win or lose he would follow the rules. Her secret mission to beg for mercy is certainly outside the rules, but still it's important to him that before the duel, he presents her divorce papers.
After the duel, he's confronted by many men upset that he killed Bunnojo. He assures Ohama, who is now sticking with him, that no one would carry a grudge about the duel as he followed the rules. He's wrong however, and despite the fact that he reacted to his opponents lethal force, he's attacked as a villain just the same. This doesn't bother him much either, as their attack justifies him killing them. One thing that's very clear about Ryunosuke is that the act of killing doesn't bother him at all. Everyone he encounters recognizes his skill. He makes those around him nervous because of that skill, and because he makes no attempt to show compassion or humility. It seems to be accepted that few people are a match for him. He isn't devoted to social skills but to his sword. The character of Ryunosuke has much in common with the Albert Camus' character Meursault in his novel "The Stranger" who is sentenced to death on a murder charge, not so much for the murder, but because he didn't care enough about the recent death of his mother. Ryunosuke kills, but many samurai kill, he's unnerving because he gives the act of killing no gravity.
When he tells Ohama that the sword is his family, he's not exaggerating, his sword style is who he is. He waits for an action and then strikes. He never seems to desire a family at all but in reacting to events he acquires one. While he could hardly be presented as a loving husband he follows the rules, staying in the relationship, until Ohama has had enough and tries to kill him. He reacts by killing her. We don't know what happens to his infant son, but he does show some regard for him, hoping he'll grow up safe, which is more regard than he shows for anyone else.
Even his knowledge that Bunnojo's brother Hyoma is after revenge for the death of his brother doesn't cause him to change his behavior. He even sends a message to Hyoma apologizing that he'll have to kill him in one blow. He says much the same to Ohama in private, presenting it as a fact that Hyoma will challenge him and as a result he'll have to kill him. He waits for the challenge rather than seeking out Hyoma himself.
The sword teacher Shimada is the only one presented as a match for Ryunosuke. He's everything that Ryunosuke is not, most significantly, in that he's reluctant to take life and angry when he's forced to do so. Where Ryunosuke's style is deceptive and cruel, Shimada's is forthright and mercifully quick. He tells Shimada "The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword. Evil mind, evil sword." Seeing him in action, effortlessly killing all of Ryunosuke's group, we see that his confidence in his own abilities is profoundly shaken, a fact which Shimada notices as well.
Even though all of Ryunosuke's actions are reactions that doesn't eliminate the consequences from them. We see that forces ally against him. Hyoma crosses paths with Omatsu, the girl whose grandfather he killed and they start working against him. Within Ryunosuke's group of samurai, a movement begins against him as well. There's also the idea of the ghosts of his past working against him. We could perhaps dismiss the ghosts as his imagination if Omatsu hadn't witnessed them. When he lashes out against the ghosts, we see him break his form, slashing wildly at foes who aren't there when he strikes. He attempts to take on the dead and the living at the same time and despite his shaky appearances he appears no less formidable against either. Nobody can stand against him, except Shimada, who doesn't seem to feel that it's his fight. We don't see a resolution to Hyoma's revenge, or even of the fighting with the other samurai, but that isn't the point anyway. What we do see in Hyoma's quest is the idea that he had a debt trailing after him, and since he's a man not a real force of nature, it will keep pushing until he acts, which is exactly what does happen. He finally snaps and it's an explosion which looks like it will completely wear him out.
"The Sword of Doom" is dark for a samurai movie, and director Kihachi Okamoto's black and white presentation really serves it well. While sword fighting is a crucial element of the film, your average sword fight happens so quickly that not even the referee can see what really happened. To illustrate Ryunosuke's mastery of the sword, he needs many opponents to take him on as each adversary is dispatched in a moment. There are two scenes where Ryunosuke takes on far greater numbers, and one where Shimada does the same. This sets the two of them in a class apart. They are not true enemies however, as much as counterparts. Ryunosuke imagines he will challenge Shimada one day, but instead gets surrounded by his own life and what comes of his own sword style. The last fight scene is a one of a kind experience. Watching Ryunosuke fight madness, ghosts and endless living samurai is as strange as it sounds, and even more affecting. The supporting characters all carry themselves perfectly, Michiyo Aratama gives us a more complex mistress/wife than I expected. She negotiates some difficult moral area and ends up being more of a match for Ryunosuke than many of his fellow samurai. Even knowing his cruelty, she doesn't keep quiet, telling him exactly what she thinks of him. Yuzo Kayama is great as the likeable and eager Hyoma, who has good intentions, but never really feels like he has a chance against the greater swordsman.
Tatsuya Nakadai gives an amazing performance. With his eyes alone, he gives Ryunosuke a haunted look that tells us he's capable of anything. When he witnesses Shimada's abilities, he barely moves yet we can see that he's about to implode from the weight of what he's just seen. We can believe that up until that point it's never even occurred to him that someone could beat him. Toshiro Mifune is one of few actors with enough presence to make Shimada believable as the only swordsman with enough skill and presence to halt Ryunosuke in his tracks. Where Ryunosuke absorbs everything from an opponent, including the thrill of making a strike, in order to strike back cruelly and decisively, Shimada doesn't engage at all, only killing as a last resort, and relying on speed and power rather than trickery. Killing happens all the time, but the cruelty is what makes Ryunosuke different and loathed by everyone he meets.
Whether or not he's "evil" is another question. Although he's very cruel, he doesn't typically act out of malice, unless a malice towards the world in general. Ohama seems to feel that's the truth, and she tells him to "kill the whole world" because that's what she sees in him. Yet, he doesn't turn Ohama away when she has nowhere else to go, and he does have some feeling towards his son, even saving him from his mother on one occasion. He also spares Omatsu towards the end, although perhaps not knowing what Serizawa had planned. Certainly Hyoma's grudge could be looked at more closely, as his brother first attempted homicide.
To reduce the story to "good" versus "evil" reduces the world around these men. While there's clearly a kind of karmic balance at work, it's much bigger than the usual "what comes around, goes around" understanding of the concept. He isn't punished for doing something bad, he's simply followed by the pain he's had a hand in contributing to. His general lack of humility and compassion make him difficult to like and he's too skilled to be easily eliminated, so naturally people fear and hate him. His actions do lead to good outcomes at times, such as Hyoma and Omatsu crossing paths, which would likely make her grandfather happy. We're not shown what happens to his son but in his life there are possibilities. It's also worth considering that if the more mild mannered Hyoma had killed a man in a duel in the same way that Ryunosuke killed Bunnojo, it's unlikely that anyone would have attacked him for it. Shimada says "evil sword, evil soul" but this is just a simplification of the concept that the sword style and the man's soul reflect each other. Beyond good and evil, there's a sense that some things are good for a time and then their use is passed. It's not a coincidence i think that in Ryunosuke's match with Bunnojo, Bunnojo tries a tsuki strike, the same method that Hyoma and Shimada determine is the only way to defeat him. He then witnesses Shimada at work, and it's as if the means of his defeat have become a concept that the world is working on.
His real crime is that he's not willing to be "his brother's keeper." He feels he owes nothing to anyone or anything but his sword and so ends up alone with his sword in the end, along with everything he set in motion with it. This isn't a redemption story, simply a character trying to live in his own skin, using a code that ensures this will only get more difficult the longer he lives. Some have complained that subplots were unresolved and the freeze frame ending is abrubt, and it should be mentioned that originally this was to be the first in a series of films. Personally I think it ends at just the right spot, nothing sums up the character more than his sword about to come down.
As the film starts, the titles tell us, "Spring, 1860, The Sakurada Gate Incident" We see an elderly Buddhist man visit a mountaintop shrine with his granddaughter, Omatsu (Yôko Naitô) He tells her a story of two rivers being started at the shrine long ago, before she leaves him to refill her grandfather's water container. Shortly after she leaves him the old man prays for death, to stop his being a burden to his granddaughter. He's surprised when a man with a sword, Ryunosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) appears and obliges his prayer, quickly killing the shocked old man with his sword. He leaves and the old man's granddaughter soon finds the body.
Ryonusuke returns home and has words with his ailing father, who begs him to let his opponent, Bunnojo Utsuki (Ichirô Nakatani ) win, in a fencing match the next day. Ryonusuke has been kicked out of the fencing school and so loses no honor if he loses, while his opponent will receive a new position if he wins, benefiting his whole family. He urges him "don't cling to the Kogen style" referring to his sword fighting. He tells him "I don't fully understand your sword form. You draw out your opponent. Then, in an unguarded moment, you cruelly...And the cruelty doesn't stop with your sword. It seems to have seeped into your mind and body. It frightens me." Ryonusuke is not moved by this reasoning but he's called away to meet with a woman. She introduces herself as Ohama, (Michiyo Aratama) Utsuki's sister. Like Ryunosuke's father, she pleads with him to lose the match. He quickly realizes that Ohama is not the sister, but Utsuki's wife. He tells her, "I Ryunosuke Tsukue, trust only my sword in this world. When I fight, I have no family." She accuses him of being cruel and heartless. He counters, "a swordsman prizes his skill like a woman prizes her chastity... would you surrender your chastity?" Not willing to take no for an answer, as it will mean the ruin of her family, she gives up her chastity. Satisfied, Ryonusuke tells her, he will lose the match.
The next day however, Utsuki tells Ohama that he knows what she's done and gives her a letter of divorce. Although the match is not expected to be a duel to the death, Utsuki vows that Ryunosuke will die. When the time for their match arrives, it's over almost instantly, the fencing official calls it a draw. Ryunosuke questions this verdict, pointing out what really happened, Utsuki tried an illegal "tsuki thrust," which he parried, killing Utsuki in the process. They inspect Utsuki and find this to be true. Ryunosuke leaves town, but Ohama follows him and warns him of an ambush. He fends off the many attackers easily, and Ohama accompanies him after letting him know about the divorce letter.
Years later, Ryunosuke lives as an outcast with Ohama and their infant soon. He becomes affiliated with the Shinsengumi, a band of samurai who take assassination missions in the interest of strengthening the shogunate. Ohama is very unhappy and blames him for their exile status. He in turn calls her an "evil woman" and blames her for interfering with the duel as it was Utsuki's anger that ensured it would be a fatal outcome. On being called an evil woman, she grabs a sword and makes a show of attempting to kill their baby. Ryunosuke stops her. During this time, Hyoma Utsuki (Yûzô Kayama) Bunnojo Utsuki's brother has been studying with the master swordsman Shimada (Toshiro Mifune) planning to come after Ryunosuke for revenge. Hyoma also runs into Omatsu, the Buddhist man's grandaughter. Ryunosuke happens upon Shimada's studio interesting in testing himself against Shimada. Honoring the studio's custom, Ryunosoke takes a match with Shimada's top student, (who happens to be Hyoma) who he easily defeats. Ryunosuke asks for a match with Shimada, but he isn't interested, saying "There's no need for that."
Hyoma like most others, can't understand Ryunosuke's fighting style. He repeats to himself like a mantra "I push, he retreats. I retreat, he lowers his sword. Seemingly off guard, yet alert. How can I defeat his form?" He reasons that a tsuki thrust may be the only way.
Ryunosuke considers going home to check on his father, but learns that his father has died but before dying asked Hyoma to kill Ryunosuke as soon as possible, sending him to Shimada's school as he's the only teacher that can make Hyoma as strong as Ryunosuke. He's not concerned however, informing Ohama that should he come looking for revenge, then he will have to die by his sword. He sends a message to Hyoma telling him where he lives and that he will meet him anytime. He also offers an apology that he'll kill him with one stroke. Shimada talks with Hyoma about the situation, and cautions him that he isn't nearly ready to take on Ryunosuke. He tells him to shut himself in a room and practice how the tsuki thrust can defeat Ryunosuke.
Ryunosuke accompanies the Shinsengumi on an assassination mission, but is surprised when Shimada is among their target's company and he easily and savagely destroys the large group of attacking samurai. Ryunosuke is visibly shaken by Shimada's skill and doesn't engage him himself. Shimada chastises the leader of the group for forcing him to kill against his will and asks how he will atone for the loss of many good swordsmen. The leader asks Shimada to kill him. Shimada then addresses Ryunosuke, telling him "The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword. Evil mind, evil sword." Ryunosuke decides not to challenge him and returns home, the only survivor, other than the leader.
Shimada is well aware that Ryunosuke's confidence is shaken and informs Hyoma, cautioning him that he still isn't ready.He advises Hyoma to send a letter of challenge for the next morning. At home, Ryusonuke struggles with his thoughts. Ohama notices that he's acting strangely. He doesn't answer her except to say that he hopes his son grows up safely. He adds, "Children grow up even without parents, they say." He informs Ohama that he'll be leaving on a mission soon, causing her to get upset with him for "abandoning them" She calls him cruel and asks for a divorce. He barely acknowledges her, as he's focused on his sword. He simply tells her, "No." He informs her that he will kill Hyoma in the morning. She gets hysterical and tells him "Yes! Kill Hyoma! That's how you are. Kill everyone! Kill everyone in the world!" He answers "Not everyone. But, my sword will get Toranosuke Shimada one of these days."
Hyoma practices his sword fighting that night. Shimada tells him that he can't sleep because he's too worried about winning and advises him to be prepared to die as if he risks everything he may have a chance. Ryunosuke's sleep is troubled. Ohama decides to kill him in his sleep with a knife, but he wakes up and stops her. He chases her outside and asks her if it was for "Hyoma's sake" She tells him that she wanted to kill him for her own reasons so that she and the baby could be happy. He kills her with his sword and the baby starts crying.
The titles read "Spring of 1863, The Shinsen Group is Formed."
We find Omatsu has moved and is planning to become a courtesan, although her uncle Shichibei ( Kô Nishimura.)is trying to talk her out of it. She is visited by Hyoma, who doesn't expect her to remember him, although she does and invites him to sit down with her and Shichibei. Hyoma tells them that he's searching for someone. He learns that Omatsu knows the Shinsen group. He tells them that the man he's looking for, Ryunosuke is said to be among the group.Omatsu's uncle realizes that Ryunosuke is the man that killed Omatsu's grandfather. From what Hyoma tells him, he concludes "The more you tell me, the more of a villain he seems. A man from hell. The world's full of villains, but he beats them all." Omatsu sends Hyoma a message that Ryunosuke is in town. Hyoma tells Shichibei that he will confront Ryunosuke tonight, rather than try to find him again.
Among the Shinsen group, a samurai asks Ryunosuke to show him his "silent form." Serizawa the Shinsen group leader, singles out Omatsu and promises to "make her a woman" One of the other men complains about Ryunosuke not living in town, as it sets a bad example. Serizawa explains that "he's one of us, but not one of us." He then asks Ryunosuke to speak in private. Hyoma and Shichibei wait outside for Ryunosuke to come out. He tells Hyoma about Omatsu's grandfather being killed and asks Hyoma to marry her when he leaves. Hyoma is hesitant to committ as he knows there's a good chance he'll die, but Shichibei tells him he's confident that he'll win, and shows him that he has a pistol. He assures Hyoma that "If things go wrong, it's Bang!" Hyoma insists on fighting fairly.
In their private session, Serizawa asks Ryunosuke to kill Kondo, a samurai that's making it difficult for him to lead the group. In return Serizawa offers to give him Hyoma's head as well as Kondo's woman. Serizawa discovers Omatsu nearby listening in on their conversation. He advises Serizawa to kill her rather than question her. When Serizawa is hesitant he tells him to leave Omatsu to him, also letting him know he'll do what he asked. He leaves Omatsu with Ryunosuke who questions her. He tells her "Shout or run and I may have to kill you.Stay as you are until I leave." In the main hall three other samurai agree to kill Serizawa and Ryunosuke as well.
Omatsu shrieks telling Ryunosuke that she saw a woman behind him. He tells her that he felt someone was behind him too, but there's nobody there when he looks. Omatsu tells him that a courtesan stabbed herself in this room and it hasn't been used since. Ryunosuke tells her he doesn't believe in ghosts and that he's "more afraid of the living than the dead." She sees the ghost again and runs to Ryunosuke, who says he saw nothing but heard sounds. He describes what he hears and she tells him it sounds like a scene at Daibosatsu Pass. He knows the pass and asks her how she would know it. She tells him it was where her grandfather was killed. This rattles him and he draws his sword as if against the room itself. He slashes the walls and hears figures from his past and starts seeing their shadows, with every wall he slashes. The samurai in the next room soon attack him and he takes them on as well. We see that the samurai have succeeded in killing Serizawa.Ryunosuke's room is on fire, but he keeps fighting killing countless samurai while staggering around as if disoriented. He's wounded bady but keeps going although more and more samurai arrive. The film ends on Ryunosuke in the midst of making another sword slash.