The Sword of Doom opens in a seemingly peaceful setting as an old man and his granddaughter hike to the top of mountain. The granddaughter leaves for a moment and the old man prays to a statue of Buddha apparently for death. Behind the man appears the figure of Ryunosuke whose dark robe seems black even within the black and white imagery. Ryunosuke murders the man slashing his back without a single hesitation or regret leaving the corpse there to mourned. Despite being the man we will be following through the course of the film it is obvious from the first scene that this is an evil man whose evil actions are just a natural part of his existence. There is no turning back from this point as we only follow the man down his path of shadow.
Tatsuya Nakadai's performance as Ryunosuke is a very physical performance. Nakadai makes Ryunosuke a very distinct and compelling creation in his manner that he gives the character. Nakadai always walks a firm step as Ryunosuke who almost seems to glide along at times exemplify the assured confidant nature of the man especially when it is required that he unsheathe his sword for any reason. Nakadai physical manner makes Rynosuke always stand out in a very peculiar and very effective fashion as he makes him almost a blot on the canvas of the world. Even in the moments of potential light Nakadai always acts as that underlying evil which is always present. Nakadai makes him a void of a darkness but such fascinating magnetic void that pulls your gaze to him at all times.
Nakadai's greatest asset in this performance though is found in his face. Nakadai's face is terrifying in this film as a glassy eyed indifference seems to be his perpetually expression found in him. A remarkable moment early on the film is when Ryunosuke faces off in a sparing match against a man whose wife was raped by Ryunosuke after she offered herself as an attempted bribe to make him lose the match. Just before the match commences we see the two men with murder on their mind. The husband face burning with a true passion based on at least his love he once had for his wife. Nakadai though is startling in his expression which is that of a hollow soul who will kill because he can rather than any true passion on his part.
Nakadai's performance almost makes this film become a horror film in these early scenes due to his merciless style he brings to the part. He is so chilling by not showing a man of vicious violence emotions but rather making Ryunosuke a man at home in being emotionless who kills because there is no reason in his mind not to kill. The miserable nature of the man is something that Nakadai ever acts even slightly shy about in his incredible performance. Even when Ryunosuke speaks to a woman he has a child with Nakadai is striking in the way that the keeps Ryunosuke's soullessness completely in tact in these scenes still showing almost not humanity except perhaps the slightest glimmer of pleasure, pleasure in making her life a horror to endure.
Throughout the film there are these momentary glimpses of pleasure in the man which Nakadai portrays in a small psychopathic smile. In these moments Nakadai shows the only time where Ryunosuke is at all happy yet they are some of the most disturbing moments due to that Nakadai only brings this smile out when Ryunosuke is thinking of something terrible in nature that only happens to be perhaps out of his normal ordinary method of evil. Nakadai makes Ryunosuke a man this void and he is amazing in how he never does compromise this fact for any reason during the course of the story. Nakadai doesn't even leave the chance for good by making even the most genuine human emotions in the man only those only of a sadistic psycopath.
The physical presence of Nakadai needs to be strongly noted as there is such power in his portrayal of everyone of the sword fights of the film. There is one particularly spellbinding one early in the film when a group of men attempt to get revenge for a man that Ryunosuke has killed. Nakadai's style in this scene is astonishing to watch through his precision as Ryunosuke kills one man after another without even seeming to blink and only taking each man at a time while still keeping his stride at a perfect pace. In this scene we see Ryunosuke at his very best in terms of being a swordsman a man no one can touch a man whose confidence is so great that only requires the slightest effort to kill every man who questions him.
Nakadai's performance keeps Ryunosuke as a consistent monster for a long time. He does not stay this way forever though and Nakadai uses these moments as pivotal into developing the fate of his character. One of the most important scenes is when Ryunosuke accompanies a group of assassins who attempt to kill a master swordsman Shimada Toranosuke played by Toshiro Mifune which obviously means the men don't have much of a chance. Ryunosuke stays back and witnesses the slaughter of men as they fail to touch Shimada once. Nakadai is absolutely brilliant as he shows Ryunosuke lose his uncompromising confidence finally as we see his glare lose its power, and for once a fear develops in the man as he looks upon a warrior greater than he.
Ryunosuke retains himself by going into hiding with a group of assassins to avoid a duel he could have possibly lost. This leads him into a room with a woman who turns out to be the granddaughter of the old man he had killed at the beginning of the film. With that all his past deeds begin to swirl around in his mind. This might seem the moment for regret and self reflection, but no Nakadai actually takes a more interesting approach and one truer to the nature of Ryunosuke. Nakadai instead portrays it as Runosuke finally giving in to his own insanity as he tries to violently slay every ghost that haunts him and leaves him as a man trying to violently silence voices that cannot be killed.
The final fight of the film comes as Ryunosuke's rampage brings him to living warriors who seem endless as each try to kill him and Ryunosuke continues to fight against the apparently infinite number of assassins. It is a spectacular scene and Nakadai's performance incomparable in his power as he now shows Ryunosuke fighting for his life still with the same skill but no longer with that confidence that his actions are meaningless. Every slash seems harder than the last and Ryunosuke is finally wounded but continues to fight for his endless void. In his face and in his attack Nakadai shows Ryunosuke as a man fighting to his final end not seeming for life, but rather the death that he brings to others is all the life the hollow man has ever had leaving him only trying with every last ounce of his will to at least bring one more death before his own comes.
Tatsuya Nakadai obviously does not play a likable character in even a villain you love to hate sense yet this is a mesmerizing performance that glued me to the screen and when he was not on screen I only wished for him to return. Playing an antagonist is a tricky role to begin with yet playing one who is bereft even the slightest sympathy is all the greater challenge as it would be so easy to repulse without the intrigue necessary to carry the film and create character piece worth examining. There seems to be no such struggle for Nakadai whose portrait is captivating as he controls the screen all the while never once striving from the innate brutality of this portrait. Tatsuya Nakadai's achievement here is an outstanding and powerful characterization of a violent man without humanity.