Endings, perhaps more so than any other structural element of a narrative, are the most important to get right. The ending of a movie is the last thing the audience will see, and thus remains the freshest in their memory. While a bad ending won’t always sink a great movie, a great ending can often save a mediocre one, just as a terrible ending can be the demise of an otherwise solid one. The Usual Suspects (1995), for example, is a mostly unremarkable crime film, but through the virtue of its indelible Keyser Söze twist ending it has stayed relevant in pop culture well beyond what its shelf-life might otherwise have been. Would Planet of the Apes (1968) have been anywhere near as enduring had it not ended with the ruins of the Statue of Liberty? And, on the other side of the coin, would Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) have been remembered more fondly as the thrilling adventure it is had it not gone out on such a flaccid note of unearned happiness? Or could Danny Boyle’s pensive sci-fi flick Sunshine (2007) have entered the annals of science fiction greatness if it hadn’t deteriorated into a head-scratching slasher film in the third act?
But what separates a “good” ending from a “bad” one? Typically, what I notice most people point to in an ending they like–more often by way of criticizing an ending they don’t– is that it’s “satisfying”. Audiences want to know what happens to the characters of a story beyond the bounds of the film’s run time. It’s sometimes not enough to know that the characters lived happily ever after, or walked off into the sunset, if the audience doesn’t have a mental picture of what comes next. A complete story, in many people’s minds, is one that answers all their expectations and questions, leaving no loose ends for them to fret over. A movie like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) is about as traditionally satisfying as an ending can get, because it devotes time to showing what all of its many protagonists will do beyond the scope of the trilogy’s central resolution.
On the other hand, people also want their expectations satisfied in a way they don’t predict: the ending must reach a logical conclusion in a surprising way. That’s why even a hanging ending like Inception (2010), which doesn’t necessarily satisfy all the viewers’ answers (are we in reality or a dream?), still works, because while the abrupt cut to black takes us by surprise, we realize that the question it’s posing was inevitable from the start due to the premise of the film. The surprise of the abrupt cut combined with the inevitability of the question it poses makes it a satisfying ending, despite leaving things open to interpretation.
So what about unsatisfying endings? They can be absolutely be great, but it will likely never make for a popular narrative choice. In 2007, the Coen brothers’ bleak neo-western film No Country for Old Men left viewers with a perplexing and counterintuitive ending that both refused to answer questions, and defied all genre expectations. The hero is killed off-screen, the evil villain remains uncaught, and the film abruptly cuts to black and silence after a monologue describing a dream that offers no readily tangible explanation for the baffling narrative choices that came before. At first glance there are not even any causal threads between the scene itself and its choice to end there, unlike Inception where the cut in its hanging ending is an obvious choice to punctuate the question it poses. And while I could write an entire article about why No Country for Old Men‘s ending works for the film it serves, today I’m going to talk about a movie that falls into this latter camp of divisive endings that doesn’t satisfy the audiences desires…only in this case, it wasn’t intentional at all, and yet it still manages to better the movie.
Kihachi Okamoto’s 1966 samurai film The Sword of Doom stars the great Tetsuya Nakadai as a psychopathic sword for hire who seems to exist solely for the pleasure of killing and proving his ultimate mastery of his blade. Even more so than No Country for Old Men, the ending for The Sword of Doom seems to come out of nowhere, ending on a freeze frame that happens before the climax of the movie even resolves itself. But in order to dissect why the abrupt, and final, ending to The Sword of Doom works, we’re going to have to assume the death of the author. In this case the author(s), screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto and director Kihachi Okamoto, are literally dead, but I’m referring to French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthe’s 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” in which he argues that by trying to frame a work through the intent of its author is inherently limiting to the work itself. The two are separate entities, and as soon as the work is finished, its author is “dead”. Were we not to assume the death of the author in The Sword of Doom’s case, we would find the work to be perpetually incomplete, the first act in a series that will never be finished.
The Sword of Doom is actually based on a serialized novel called Daibosatsu toge (or, in english, Great Bodhisattva Pass) that was left fittingly incomplete after the literal death of its own author, Kaizan Nakazat, forty-one volumes in. The popular novel inspired multiple multi-film adaptations that were completed before The Sword of Doom, the first in yet another take on Great Bodhisattva Pass, was foisted upon Okamoto by Toho Studio after his prior film disappointed. Unfortunately for Toho, The Sword of Doom was another strike for Okamoto. The premise is a punchy one for a single-minded action film, but The Sword of Doom is bloated to two hours by uninteresting sub-plots that don’t see any resolution in this entry, has a cliffhanger ending, and was yet another adaptation of a story that Japanese audiences were already very familiar with on cinema screens, so it’s no great surprise that the movie didn’t resonate with audiences at the time, even when accounting for its spectacular action sequences and a terrifying lead performance by Nakadai. So what? Why has this film endured, even being admitted to the much vaunted preservation of the Criterion Collection? Certainly its remarkable cinematography and action direction, as well as Nakadai’s performance, play a significant part, but I would argue that not only does its unsatisfying freeze-frame ending elevate the rest of the film, but its accidental status as a standalone film actually makes it a stronger story than it likely would have turned out as a complete series. So again, in order to dive into why this ending is so strong, we need to divorce it from any authorial intent, either assumed or documented. Let’s let the work speak for itself.
“The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword. Evil mind, evil sword.” These words, spoken by Toshiro Mifune’s master swordsman character, and the thus the de facto arch-rival of Ryunosuke, Shimada Toranosuke, haunt Nakadai’s Ryunosuke. A large crux of the film’s themes rest on competing philosophies, offered up by Shimada and Ryunosuke’s father. Ryunosuke’s father believes that Ryunosuke was corrupted by his evil sword technique, where as Shimada believes the opposite. While Shimada has no compunction about slicing his way through an army of attackers if he has to, he’s no killer; he spares the life of the leader of the assault, living by his own philosophy. In an alternate universe we would have gotten to see Shimada and Ryunosuke square off in a no doubt effectively shot swordfight, but in the universe we live in Shimada doesn’t even need to fight Ryunosuke because he’s already won, and in a way that is perhaps more closely aligned with his worldview. No matter whether Ryunosuke is corrupted by his sword, or his sword is the result of his own corruption, the end result is the same: he is utterly consumed by his blood lust. Ryunosuke represents the opposite philosophy of Shimada, and where the latter achieves clarity and grace, Ryunosuke is ultimately paralyzed by his own relationship with his sword.
The final ten minutes of Sword of Doom, in addition to being some of the finest samurai carnage committed to film, represents the abyssal consumption of all other plot points, as Ryunosuke and the film itself are pulled into an expressionist void of eternal torment and slaughter. That may be a dramatic way to explain away a jarring freeze-frame ending, but the evidence is apparent in this stylistically distinct climax. Just as the disparate plot threads that over the course of the film’s bloated runtime are on the verge of collision (the granddaughter of Ryunosuke’s first on screen victim is thrust into the same room with him, the brother of another victim has finally found Ryunosuke’s location to take his vengeance, and the uncle of the granddaughter has pledged to aid the two of them) the movie becomes a horror story. Ryunosuke –after taking a conspiratorial meeting with the head of the Shogunate hitsquad, the Shinzen group, to orchestrate the assassination of some of its members in an allegedly haunted room– begins to hear, and see, ghosts. With this left-field introduction of the supernatural (or is it, if we are to believe he has an evil sword?) the film breaks with its established style and plunges us into a claustrophobic expressionist nightmare. The tiny room, surrounded only by four transparent walls, suddenly becomes a literal maze. No matter how many walls Ryunosuke cuts through he can neither escape this prison nor kill the tormenting spirits, the physical set has warped to match his unraveling mental state.
Finally, Ryunosuke manages to stumble back into what at first glance appears to be the plane of reality, as he slices through a wall and finds himself surrounded by the clan of political assassins that are there to kill him in their own counter-machinations. Instead of strict reality, however, the spheres of the physical world and the mental seem to have overlapped as Ryunosuke has traded one hell for another. The clue that gives away the liminality of the space is the incongruously theatrical spotlight that separates Ryunosuke from his attackers (although “soon-to-be victims” might be a more apt description), both within the physical mise-en-scène and the characters’ mental states. It is unclear whether Ryunosuke even sees the men around him as they are, or if he believes he is still surrounded by ghosts of his past. It doesn’t much matter either way, as the end result is that he is trapped by the victims, or soon-to-be victims, of his seemingly immortal sword of doom. No matter how many swordsman he cuts down, there seems to be an endless supply to replace them.
While Ryunosuke’s ultimate fate is left open-ended thanks to the freeze-frame ending that captures him mid sword swing, if taken in context of the expressionistic renditions of his ensnaring madness that are strewn throughout the climax, it feels less like a cliffhanger and more like the realization of his entire character arc. Since Ryunosuke’s life goal was to attain power through remorseless slaughter, the ultimate ironic retribution for his crimes is to be trapped forever in a battle he can never escape from; and the title of the film itself, The Sword of Doom, takes on a portentous new angle for its wielder as much as its victims. Though it’s not clear if he is in agony or ecstasy in this violent prison of his own making, with Ryunosuke the two often seem to be one and the same. The film, too, is one of agony and ecstasy, where flaws and brilliance walk hand in hand, and the greatest of either is the ending itself. The passive act of leaving the film incomplete ended up making its narrative feel so decisively and fittingly complete, almost as if it were possessed by a mind of its own.