Kihachi Okamoto’s landmark modernist anti-samurai saga has a sneaky agenda: We meet expert swordsman Ryunosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) amid a seemingly senseless act of violence, the mystery of which we presume will be revealed to us. Soon it becomes clear, as the bodies accumulate, that this is an unrelentingly grim portrait of a sociopath numbly obeying his inner demon and appalling everyone, even in this warrior-based social arena. Dismayingly brutal, it has all of the raging simplicity of a Lawrence Tierney noir, and an endless, climactic bloodbath fought in a burning house that obviously imprinted its DNA on Peckinpah and Tarantino. All the stranger, then, that Okamoto’s movie was derived from 30 years’ worth of a popular newspaper serial—if soul-sick madness was always part of the samurai schema, Japanese movies never explored it before this. It is in any case a stunning indictment of masculine culture, and Nakadai’s performance—his huge eyes lost in a hundred-yard stare and never meeting anyone’s gaze—is unforgettable. This Criterion disc is uncharacteristically supplement free, packing only a new Geoffrey O’Brien essay.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 29, 2005