Based on a popular series of Japanese novels, the Sleepy Eyes Of Death films follow a nihilist ronin named Nemuri Kyoshiro. While the initial wave of films began with three entries that were made by Toho between 1956 and 1958 and starred Koji Tsuruta in the lead role, the better known wave began in 1963 with The Chinese Jade. The first to feature popular actor Ichikawa Raizo in the role, Daiei Studios would have the actor return eleven more times before his all too early death in 1969. Animeigo released the first six films of the sixties/Raizo run on VHS and is now releasing the series on DVD much to the delight of samurai movie fans around the country.
The Chinese Jade (1963):
The first entry introduces us to Nemuri Kyoshiro, a strange looking masterless samurai who is feared throughout the land for his signature technique, the Full Moon Cut. When the film begins, Kyoshiro takes on a group of assassin who lay in wait to ambush him. When he takes care of them, he inadvertently proves his worth to their master, one Lord Maeda, who has need of his skills. To entice him, Maeda sends his an orphan girl he's raised named Chisa (Tamao Nakamura) to his home in an attempt to seduce him.
None of this sits well with Kyoshiro's needy girlfriend but he lets Chisa into his home even though he knows that she's up to something. After he calls her bluff and she offers up her body to him, Kyoshiro is convinced to check out Maeda's enemy, a man of Chinese decent named Chen Sun (Tomisaburo Wakayama). He learns that Chen has an important document which he hides inside a jade statue. This document can prove the involvement of Maeda's Clan in some rather nefarious criminal activity, a revelation that would obviously bring with it a lot of problems.
Despite some great 'I hate the world and everyone in it' type dialogue from Kyoshiro delivered with fantastic deadpan seriousness by Raizo and a couple of stand out action sequences, this first entry in the series is the slowest of the bunch. What it does well, however, is establish the lead character for the more interesting stories to come. Raizo is great in the lead, playing the bitter and jaded character perfectly and never once losing his cool, while an almost unrecognizable Tomisaburo Wakayama, looking very different with his head shaved than he did in the Lone Wolf And Cub film's he's best known for, makes for a perfect foil. The finale where the two square off using their very different styles provides a pretty strong conclusion and a few twists in the storyline help make things interesting but the direction definitely takes its time ramping the plot.
Sword Of Adventure (1964):
The second installment in the series along with Zatoichi was directed by Kenji Misumi, who would later helm the Lone Wolf And Cub.Interestingly enough, Ichikawa Raizo worked with the director in the earlier chambara series, Satan's Sword. During his travels through Japan, Nemuri Kyoshiro undresses an unsuspecting woman with his sword and winds up trying to protect an employee of the Shogunate from a man named Akaza Gunbei who wants to kill him. Unfortunately, this gets Kyoshiro in hot water with one of the Shogun's daughters, Princess Takahime, who lusts after the samurai and wants him for her own.
Takahime also wants Gunbei dead, because Gunbei has shown the shogun where he can cut costs which has resulted in her father giving her less money. Before you know it, a gang of hired thugs and criminals are out to get Nemuri regardless of cost and poor Kyoshiro finds himself duped, drugged by a sneaky fortune teller, and all out of luck with only his sword to depend on.
A big improvement over the first film in terms of visuals, cinematography and fight choreography this second entry is noticeably more exciting than the one that came before it. Taking the interesting nihilistic qualities that were part of the first film and bringing them into a faster paced and more interesting story works well. There are a few interesting scenes of combat, one in which our samurai takes on a spearman and a shuriken wielding fighter though here, unlike in the other films, he doesn't seem quite so indestructible when it comes time to unsheathe his blade.
Again, Raizo is fantastic in the lead role. More so than in the first film he seems to take a sort of sinister satisfaction in his work. Unlike the fairly noble Zatoichi who was and still is immensely popular, Kyoshiro is a bit of a bastard at times and a lot of his 'helping' of others is done for selfish reasons. We see this come into play in the first film and it continues throughout the series, this second entry is no exception, this his insistence in helping Gunbei does contradict the self serving nature that would be a big part of his character in later entries.
Circle Of Killing (1964):
The third film in the series begins with the shogun's bastard son, Lord Takayuki, beheading a peasant fisherman not because the man has done anything wrong but because he simply wants to test the quality of his sword. Not surprisingly, Nemuri Kyoshiro just happens to be in the area when this murder takes place and the local villagers assume he is in some way connected to the sinister Takayuki. Kyoshiro is without his sword, however, as it's being refinished, and this proves to them that he's not with Takayuki. After retrieving his sword, Kyoshiro is given the opportunity to give Takayuki a taste of his own medicine when he chops off the arm of one of his men.
When rumors start to circulate that Takayuki is killing off the Shogun's other son, Kyoshiro teams up with the dim son of the murdered fisherman to get revenge. Along the way, Kyoshiro has his way with Takayuki's woman which leads to an assassination attempt on him and eventually Takayuki gathers all his men together for a plan he is certain will rid this planet of the troublesome Kyoshiro once and for all.
An improvement over the first two films, this third entry is where Kyoshiro's character really starts to develop into the more sinister, uncaring samurai that he'd become known for in the later entries. His jaded world view, previously limited to occasional instances of misogyny and periodic bursts of nihilistic dialogue, begins to manifest itself more physically and is evident not only in his rather bizarre diatribes but also in his actions. The most obvious example of this is how he forces himself on Takayuki's woman, Konami, using his sword to not only intimidate her but also to remove her of her clothes. He obviously enjoys not only the physical aspect of this act but also the psychological one, and we're definitely meant to believe that he enjoys frightening her as much as he enjoys molesting her.
This contrast within Kyoshiro, the heroic side that periodically rescues or helps those in needs and the selfish side that cares for nothing in this world, is a big part of what makes him interesting and sets him apart from a lot of the other, better known recurring samurai characters popular in Japanese films from the early years on. At this point in the storyline he is very definitely an anti-hero, using those who he has a need for and dispatching with those he does not. Interestingly enough, however, this is the only film in the four collected in this set where Kyoshiro has a 'normal' relationship with a female character, Numuri, the wife of a condemned criminal who he comes into contact with. Of course, when her husband is freed on the condition that he kill Kyoshiro, their relationship is as damned as his soul.
On top of the interesting character development, this film also has a bit more going for it in terms of style and action. A few fast paced and interesting duels help keep things moving along while the finale in which Kyoshiro squares off against Takayuki and his band along a river light by torches is as striking as it is intense.
Sword Of Seduction (1964):
The fourth film in the set is the most interesting of the lot. When the film begins, we're introduced to Princess Kiku (Michiko Ai), who seems to take great pleasure in getting her servants hooked on opium and then forcing them into withdrawal before having them killed and dumping their naked bodies in the river. Kiku too is an opium addict, a drug smuggler that she's been involved with got her hooked to ensure that the supply chain would continue to run smoothly and with minimal interference from the Shogun. Returning from the first film is Chen Sun (Tomisaburo Wakayama), now employed by the smugglers who hope to have him eliminate the pesky Kyoshiro, who continues to poke his nose into their business and make things difficult for them.
Meanwhile, the powers that be continue to persecute Christians all across the country, resulting in a burgeoning underground movement in which Christians meet in secret to worship away from the government that would force them to convert to Buddhism. The head of this underground movement is The Virgin Shima (Naoko Kuba), a beautiful woman who dresses as a nun. A few members of the underground movement, knowing Kyoshiro is the son of a missionary, hope to convince him to help their cause and protect Shima but he's not interested. When Kyoshiro witnesses Kiku's cruelty towards a few Christians of strong faith, however, he changes his mind not out of spiritual obligation but out of respect for those who hold true to their beliefs.
As the film progresses, the smugglers are revealed to be behind the secret Christian gatherings for their own reasons and Kyoshiro is pursued by Chen Sun. Kiku's true nature is revealed and The Virgin Shima reveals to Kyoshiro the truth behind his birth and his parents.
Noticeably more violent than the first three entries, this film takes all of the interesting qualities of the earlier entries, blends them all together, and throws in some strange scenes of psychedelic hallucination and bloody swordplay. Kyoshiro's Full Moon Cut technique is given much heavier emphasis here both in terms of how it plays out in the story and how it's shot and presented visually, giving the character an almost superhuman feel at times. We also really start to see Kyoshiro's true dark nature come to the forefront of his character. Whether he's having his way with women, decapitating hypocritical missionaries, or sneakily exposing the Princess as the 'monster' that she really is he is not portrayed as a hero this time around even if he does stick to his own code quite rigidly.
Again, Ichikawa Raizo shines in the lead role, delivering dialogue that, if not played completely straight could have easily turned into self parody. His deliver has such commitment and his performance such intensity, however, that he's completely convincing in the part.
The four films in the collection are all presented in their original 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratios and generally they look quite good here. There isn't much in the way of print damage, dirt or debris to get annoyed over and color reproduction looks quite lifelike, never overcooked or blown out. Skin tones look a little bit waxy in a couple of spots but this is an occasional problem rather than a constant, thankfully. A little bit of line shimmering can be seen here and there but these are minor complains, overall this is a nice looking set with strong detail and a clean, consistently strong picture quality.
Each film is presented in Japanese language Dolby Digital Mono with optional English subtitles. Animeigo has actually done a really impressive job with the subtitles here, allowing you to choose from 'dialogue only' subtitles or 'full subtitles' (meaning they translate signs and written pages as well as the spoken parts of the film) in either yellow or white text. Dialogue is crisp and clear and there are no problems with any hiss or distortion to note. The levels are all properly balanced and while the range is limited (understandable given that these are older pictures) overall things sound just fine, leaving no room for complaint.
The first disc in the set contains a feature length audio commentary from Ric Meyers and Jeff Rovin. This is a decent enough track that provides some biographical information on the key cast and crew members and gives some historical context to the proceedings. They also discuss the influence of the film and some of the other projects that the cast members and crew members were responsible for creating. It isn't a super revealing in-depth piece but it covers all of the basics well enough.
Each of the four discs includes a selection of trailers for other Animeigo releases, production notes, a still gallery, animated menus and chapter selection. Inside the digipack that holds the four DVDs that make up this set is a nice full color booklet that contains a few essays and reviews that put the film's into historical context and provide some welcome background information on the time in Japanese history where they are set.
While not as over the top as the Lone Wolf And Cub or Hanzo The Razor films, the four Sleepy Eyes Of Death films contained in Animeigo's spiffy boxed set are still full of enough quirk and carnage that samurai fans will find them hard to resist. The extras might not set your world on fire but the audio and video presentation is quite strong and the movies are intriguing, entertaining, and just generally very, very cool. Ichikawa Raizo brings such a bizarre and unlikely effeminate charisma to his misogynistic ronin that the films are always interesting and this set comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.