In the Shogunate Japan of the 1860s, Ryunosuke (Nakadai) is a wayward samurai who lives by the sword, killing with impunity. After felling an adversary, he takes the man’s widow by force and starts making his living as a warrior for hire. But the dead man’s brother Hyoma (Kayama) trains with a master fight instructor Shimada (Mifune) in order to exact revenge on Ryunosuke. After seeing Shimada in action, Ryunosuke starts to doubt his own skills and becomes haunted by his past murders.
Okamoto’s formal, widescreen compositions and precise camerawork echo the meticulous style of the swordsmen in this “chanbara”, the first of an uncompleted trilogy. Adapted from a sprawling novel, anti-hero Ryunosuke remains an enigma, somewhere between a psychopathic killer and a karmic angel. Nakadai’s dead-eyed performance keeps us guessing, instilling both fear and admiration as he cuts down his foes. Three stupendous fight scenes, blending visual beauty and physical horror, became cinematic touchstones for a range of future directors, from Peckinpah to Tarantino. Wield this “Sword”!