Ryunosuke Tsukue has become Death, the destroyer of worlds. He is a weapon, his steely willpower contaminated by apathy, a natural disaster lacking empathy or remorse that leaves the stink of the grave in its wake. But he is not Evil; this would assume a possession of some outside force, a demonic influence to account for his actions. No, Tsukue is infused with an effervescent spirit of destruction but maintains a corrupt Buddhist morality. His is not the wanton killing on a whim; he kills when attacked, he kills when challenged, he kills when asked, and he kills for profit. His morality leads to the grave because he cannot forgive, feel compassion; he stares into the abyss and becomes the abyss. Often, his dark eyes seem to peer into the void, seeing Nothing, revealing Nothing, feeling Nothing. Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance is perfect as his blank visage reflects this unforgiving nihilism, and subtle inflections convey a wry emotional mimicry.
Director Kihachi Okamoto films in a very Western style of extreme close-ups: a tight shot of eyes peering through wicker, a hand reaching skillfully for a sword, a silent step shifting body weight, or a severed hand blackening the purest snow. He utilizes the CinemaScope composition to its fullest effect with warriors divided by space, each silently observing the other’s technique looking to strike the fatal blow. When the violence begins this becomes a dance of death, a brutal ballet, revealing a ferocious mise-en-scene with lightening strikes of steel upon flesh. He doesn't resort to quick gimmicky montage; he shoots much of the savage combat in medium shot requiring well choreographic sequences that add a heightened realism. The ominous musical score owes more to Ennio Morricone than it does to any traditional Japanese rhythm.
Finally, Ryunosuke must face his greatest foe: himself. His descent into madness is brilliantly captured as shadows haunt his vision, ghosts of his many victims, his sword now powerless against these shades. As a ruthless gang attacks him and he fights with reckless abandon, killing scores, bleeding from the few wounds they could inflict. But there is no escape or salvation; he is forever frozen in time, an inhuman weapon of mass destruction.
Final Grade: (A)