Tatsuya Nakadai Sword of Doom

by Andrea Grunert

This is not the first time that I have written about Nakadai Tatsuya, and once again it is a challenge. Nakadai began his screen career in 1953 and is still active. The huge number of cinematic masterpieces he was cast in make a choice of just one difficult. He worked with some of the greatest directors of the Golden Age of Japanese cinema in the 1950s, including Kurosawa Akira, Kobayashi Masaki and Naruse Mikio. In an interview Nakadai, who was born in 1932, once said that he had played his most important roles before he reached the age of 30. One of these landmark roles is without doubt that of Kaji in Kobayashi Masaki’s monumental The Human Condition (Ningen no jōken, 1959-1961). Nakadai’s first screen appearance was in another of Kobayashi’s films – The Thick-Walled Room (Kabe atsuki heya, 1953). – and Kobayashi was his mentor and a director with whom he made nine films, including Kobayashi’s last fiction film The Empty Table (Shokukatsu no nai ie, 1985). Nakadai was also frequently cast in the films of other important Japanese directors such as Gosha Hideo, Okamoto Kihachi, Ishikawa Kon and Teshigahara Hiroshi and, in the last decade, in films directed by Kobayashi Masahiro. He has appeared in jidai geki (period films) and in gendai geki (films set in the modern world), has played famous swordfighters such as Miyamoto Musashi in Sasaki Kojirō (1967, Inagaki Hiroshi) and other historical figures such as General Nogi, a hero of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) in Port Arthur (203 kōchi, 1980, Masuda Toshio). He has also appeared in international productions such as Tonino Cervi’s spaghetti western Today We Kill…Tomorrow We Die! (Oggi a me…domani a te, 1968).
Trained as a theatre actor, Nakadai worked in the Haiyu-za Theatre Company and at other theatres in Tokyo, and in 1975 he and his late wife, the actress and writer Miyazaki Yasuko, founded the Mumei-juku, the School of the Nameless, an acting school associated with the Mumei-juku Nakadai Gekido Theatre.

An embodiment of evil
Taking into account Nakadai’s astonishing career on screen and stage and the resulting problem of illustrating the wide range of his performances in a short article, I have decided to concentrate on just one film: Okamoto Kihachi’s The Sword of Doom (Dai-bosatsu Tōge, 1966). This gives me an opportunity to have a closer look at Nakadai’s acting style and situate his role in this film in a broader cinematic and cultural context.
The Sword of Doom is one of thirteen films Nakadai made with Okamoto (1). The story is set in the period between 1860 and 1863 and thus a few years before the collapse of the shogunate and the restoration of imperial power in 1868 known as the Meiji Restoration. Nakadai plays Tsukue Ryūnosuke, a samurai who becomes a killer for the Shinsengumi, the special police force created by the shogunate in 1863.
His first appearance in the film sets the tone for character of this mysterious protagonist. An old pilgrim asks Amida Buddha to grant him death as a release from the burden of life. While he is praying at a shrine in a deserted mountain region, a voice from behind calls out “Old man!” The pilgrim, framed in the foreground, turns his head, allowing the viewer to see who has called out – a slender figure clad in a dark kimono and wearing a basket hat that hides his face. In one of the next shots, the stranger draws his sword and kills the old man with one quick blow. Only then is his face shown in close-up, the hint of a smile playing on his lips and with wide open and shining eyes, Nakadai’s very prominent and un-Oriental eyes that have fascinated so many filmmakers.
Ryūnosuke is portrayed as a sociopath and the embodiment of evil. His father and also Shimada Toronasuke (Mifune Toshirō), the master of a dōjō (a training place for the martial arts) comment on Ryūnosuke’s thirst for blood and sadistic strain. Ryūnosuke’s father is disgusted by his son’s cold-bloodedness, and Shimada says to one of his disciples: “The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword (…). An evil mind makes an evil sword.” The idea of the sword as the soul is an intrinsic element in innumerable jidai geki, and the journey undertaken by the swordfighter seeking perfection but unable to establish lasting human relationships – especially with women – is a major theme in many Japanese period films. The samurai as a man driven by an obsession had been presented in earlier films such as Inagaki Hiroshi’s trilogy (1954-1956, [2]) focusing on Myamoto Musashi, the famous 17th century swordfighter and starring Mifune Toshirō, and even more clearly in the five films about Musashi directed by Uchida Tomu (1961-1965, [3]) with Nakamura Kinnosuke in the leading role. There is no doubt that the historical figure Musashi was obsessed with his sword and a killer. However, in Inagaki’s trilogy version, he is presented as a romanticized figure and in Uchida’s films, where he is dehumanized in numerous scenes, he is nevertheless given the larger-than-life status of his famous historical namesake.
Ryūnosuke’s obsession with violence is clearly revealed as pathological. Claiming that “a man of the sword prizes his skill like a woman prizes her chastity”, his thirst for blood perverts the way of the sword. Although Sword of Doom does not break with genre conventions, it does present a very radical view of the concept of violence that is at the heart of the jidai geki. A samurai’s way of life and code of honour have been critically explored in numerous films since the late 1920s. Kurosawa’s bodyguard (Yojimbo/Yōjinbō, 1961), played by Mifune, is an ambivalent almost anarchic super-samurai who nevertheless fights against evil. There is no such ambiguity in Okamoto’s film, where the hero is a villain but at the same time a broken character living a miserable life and tormented by doubts when confronted with Shimada’s tremendous martial arts skills. His big eyes wide open, he is spellbound as he watches Shimada fight successfully against ten or more Shinsengumi simultaneously, defeating them one by one.
Okamoto’s film establishes an intertext between the actors Nakadai and Mifune, who belong to different generations, Mifune being twelve years older than Nakadai. Mifune started his career playing young rebels in films such as Snow Trail (Ginrei no hate, 1947, Taniguchi Senkichi) and Drunken Angel (Yoidore tenshi, 1948, Kurosawa Akira). In films of the 1950s and early 1960s, he often displayed a strong manliness combined with juvenile nonchalance in roles to which he always brought great creativity and subtlety, using naturalism as well as a somewhat eccentric approach. Mifune played the ambivalent character of the yojimbo in Kurosawa’s eponymous film in a way that challenged his more conventional roles in other jidai geki directed by Inagaki or Taniguchi. However, as Kurosawa stated: “Mifune is simply too well-built, he has too much presence. He can’t help but bring his own dignity to his roles.” (4)
Shimada is the epitome of the righteous master swordfighter who fights evil despite the contradictions at the core of the samurai code. The man in the palanquin that the Shinsengumi attack is not the man they want to kill but is Shimada, whose skills are far superior to theirs. He reproaches the leader of the group of assassins and their only survivor (Shimada lets him live), saying that their thoughtless act forced him to kill. The samurai who does not want to kill but repeatedly uses his sword for this sole purpose is a further topic familiar from jidai geki and an intrinsic aspect of the films based on Musashi that have been mentioned above.
Unlike Ryūnosuke, Shimada, played by Mifune in a dignified manner, is an honourable person and thus a more conventional samurai of the kind Mifune frequently played. The long fight sequence between Shimada and the Shinsengumi is one of the film’s crucial moments and can be seen as a gesture of respect to the actor Mifune, for whom Nakadai expressed his admiration in an interview conducted in 2016: “I would consider him my great mentor, and inspiration.” (5)

Nakadai’s acting style
In Inagaki Hiroshi’s Kanketsu Sasaki Kojirō: Ganryū-jima kettō (1951), Musashi, played by Mifune, is a minor figure with only a few appearances. The legendary swordfighter is very clearly portrayed as a killing machine, Mifune playing him with animalistic wildness and magnetic sensuality. In The Sword of Doom, Nakadai’s screen presence and acting contribute considerably to the film’s heightened violence, a level of violence that marks the jidai geki made in the 1960s and later. His facial expressions and his body language show that he is a man whose sole purpose in life is to kill. However, they are also clues to alienation and to the emptiness in his existence.
Nakadai plays Ryūnosuke with a blank expression on his face and with somnambulistic movements that indicate complete emotional detachment. His impassiveness is a highly original reworking of the stereotypical expressionless samurai known from mainstream productions, and his exceptionally graceful movements add an incredible coolness to the character he plays, updating a traditional figure to modern times. Mifune had already very convincingly portrayed a modern hero in Yojimbo and its sequel Sanjuro (Tsubaki Sanjurō, Kurosawa Akira, 1962). In this second film, it is Nakadai who takes on the conventional role of the faithful retainer who has views in conflict with those of the nihilistic ronin played by Mifune. In Sanjuro, the protagonist is often shown sleeping, behaviour despised by the young, zealous samurai. In The Sword of Doom by contrast, the moments in which the killer Ryūnosuke is inactive serve to reveal the bleakness of his joyless and loveless life, indifference thereby becoming the character’s constant attitude, an attitude revealed through Nakadai’s highly economic acting style.
In one of his early roles, that of the gangster Jo in Kobayashi Masaki’s Black River (Kuroi kawa, 1957), Nakadai had already played a distant and cynical character with a similar laid-back attitude. Not unlike Ryūnosuke, Jo is a demoniac but tormented character. Both the samurai and the yakuza in post-war Japan are broken men who experience moments of doubt in which their apparent coolness is shaken, these moments allowing the actor to display a greater variety of emotions. Shimada is played by Mifune as a self-confident man living in harmony with himself, and when Ryūnosuke witnesses Shimada’s phenomenal strength, Nakadai’s facial expression betrays, even if only very briefly, an inner turmoil. One can only admire the great sense of timing and the flawless performance that reveal Ryūnosuke’s state of mind through such subtle means.
The mannerisms in Nakadai’s acting have a strongly idiosyncratic dimension and can be characterized by using James Naremore’s description of Cary Grant’s acting as “a highly stylized creation made up of peculiar moments and an interesting combination of expressive codes” (6). Nakadai reinterprets the impassiveness attributed to samurai in a very individual manner, adding a touch of elegance. His body is never stiff, and his face, even when blank, is never a rigid mask. His elegantly measured gestures and the delicate modulation in his voice suggest the emotions of the characters he plays rather than fully revealing them. Nakadai’s creation of cool, distant characters in both jidai geki and gendai geki of the 1960s and early 1970s are products of their time, portraying alienated heroes in a Japanese society facing rapid social change and an existential crisis.

(1) He played in ten of Okamoto’s films and was the narrator in three other of his films.
(2) Inagaki’s trilogy based on Miyamoto Musashi is also known as the Samurai Trilogy. The three films are Miyamoto Musashi (1954), Duel at Ichijoji Temple (Zoku Miyamoto Musashi: Ichijōji no kettō, 1955) and Duel at Ganryu Island (Ganryu-jima no kettō, 1956).

(3) The titles of Uchida’s five films are Miyamoto Musashi (1961), Han’nyazaka no kettō (1963), Nitōryū kaigen (1964), Ichijōji no kettō (1964) and Ganryu-jima no kettō (1965).

(4) Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, 3rd edition, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1996, p. 133.

(5) Simon Abrams, “A Living Legend: Tatsuya Nakadai on The Sword of Doom”, http://www.rogerebert.com, 8 November 2016.

(6) James Naremore, Acting in the Cinema, Berkeley/Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1990, p. 235.