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As proof of the depth and complexity of Japanese action filmmaking, AnimEigo offers the The Sleepy Eyes of Death Collector's Set Volume 2 starring the handsome Raizo Ichikawa. The costume picture heartthrob made over a hundred feature films in only fifteen years and died before his 38th birthday. His wildly successful "Nemuri Kyoshiro" series ran for twelve episodes in all from 1963 through 1969, and this Volume 2 DVD set contains features four through eight. Adapted from a group of popular samurai novels written by Renzaburo Shibata, the Ichikawa films were the second of three separate film series. Koji Tsuruta played Nemura Kyoshiro in two films in the 1950s and Masakazu Tamura made four installments in the 1990s. Actor Hiroki Matsukata took over Ichikawa's series upon his death in 1969.
The dashing Nemuri Kyoshiro is technically not a samurai but a strange outcast swordsman of low birth. His shame is that he is half gaijin -- his mother was raped by a Christian missionary-turned Satanist. Kyoshiro often refers to himself as a disreputable rogue. Frequently expressing his distaste for the Shogun's politics, he lives in a rented room in Edo's red light district, Yoshiwara. Yet, much like the detective heroes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, he operates by a fairly chivalric code. He has earned respect as a master of The Full-Moon-Cut, an hypnotic sword fighting technique that never lets him down. Neither do his magnetic good looks, which attract ladies of all persuasions.
The four films in the Volume 2 Collection place Kyoshiro in the center of complicated conspiracies and mysterious vendettas. The films are a series, not a serial: as each one functions as a stand-alone drama one needn't see them in sequence.
Sleepy Eyes of Death 5: Sword of Fire (Nemuri Kyoshiro 5: Enjo-ken) shows Kyoshiro enmeshed in danger for the usual reason, misjudging a woman. He saves a damsel in distress only to later realize that she was the guilty party. He's not above collecting her debt with sex: "When I see a woman like you, it brings out my roguish desires!" The corrupt retainer of the Todo clan, in league with an equally venal merchant, has stolen the loot of a band of pirates. At first tricked into becoming involved, Kyoshiro assembles the pieces of the puzzle and puts paid to the guilty parties. In addition to the unrepentant wicked woman, Kyoshiro meets a virtuous lady and a spirited pirate girl handy with a knife. Director Kenji Misumi handles the plot complications with ease. He pulls off quite a jolt in the cynical final scene, where Kyoshiro metes out justice to the treacherous female as would Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer.
Sleepy Eyes of Death 6: Sword of Satan (Nemuri Kyoshiro 6: Masho-ken) begins with Kyoshiro again misreading the character of a woman, in this case, a fallen lady who hides her shame behind a ceramic mask. She responds to his severe criticism by committing suicide. Kyoshiro then learns that the sad woman had dedicated herself to saving the life of young Tsurumatsu, the last surviving heir to the Iwashiro Clan. Once again, Kyoshiro takes up arms to atone for a hasty misdeed. A new conspiracy is afoot: with the Iwashiros all but gone, yet another corrupt official and merchant pair now need Tsurmatsu to prevent the Shogun from disbanding the clan, and cutting off their source of graft. Two more nefarious schemes put Kyoshiro in constant danger. He slashes his way through a surfeit of secondary characters, eventually interrupting a Satanic Black Mass ritual. Kyoshiro carries the mask of the woman he wronged on his belt, with the explanation, "This mask is a testament to my twisted and profound karma." Director Kimiyoshi Yasuda must deal with altogether too complicated a plot. His somewhat less exciting action scenes give us too much time to wonder why Kyoshiro's attackers wait in line to assault him one at a time. They then stall instead of strike, as if waiting to be cut down by his sword.
Sleepy Eyes of Death 7: The Mask of the Princess (Nemuri Kyoshiro 7: Tajo-ken) also revolves around a woman wearing a sinister mask, in this case Princess Kiku, a daughter of the Shogun who is also a perverse murderer. Kyoshiro opines that because of her damaged face, the cackling Kiku "wants to destroy that which is beautiful". As Kiku holds Kyoshiro responsible, he must spend his time fending off attacks by various assassins, including a freakishly beautiful woman in red who poses as a harmless mental case. A swordsman thought to be a friend turns out to be an enemy spy. Kyoshiro decides that he's had enough when Kiku's minions kidnap a girl that Kyoshiro had saved from a house of prostitution. Some more unlikely sword action transpires before the Shogun's emissaries arrive to once again restore order. Kiku gets her just desserts and Kyoshiro expresses his contempt for a feudal political system that puts its prestige over the rule of justice. Director Akira Inoue achieves some impressive visuals in this episode but can't overcome a script overloaded with characters, incident, and plot context that needs to be covered in lengthy expository dialogue.
Sleepy Eyes of Death 8: Sword of Villainy (Nemuri Kyoshiro 8: Burai-ken) must follow one of author Renzaburo Shibata's original books, because even the series' best director Kenji Misumi struggles with its overly complicated plot. A group of terrorists explain the details of their evil scheme for at least five minutes; several scenes simply show Kyoshiro discussing various unseen characters at length. As if that weren't enough, the terrorist mastermind then explains his nefarious plans to the captive Kyoshiro. Boiled down to its essentials, the story concerns a pair of businessmen that have cheated and murdered to monopolize a method of distilling a smokeless lamp fuel from crude swamp oil. Their hired thugs are opposed by a "principled" group of vengeful terrorists: the original developers of the refining process had planned to use the profits to benefit the public good. This time Kyoshiro stays mostly on the sidelines as the terrorist leader connives to murder a public official, ignite the storehouses of lamp oil and watch the paper-and-wood city of Edo go up in flames. Helping Kyoshiro this time is a beautiful female circus performer. When he's dropped through a trap door into a prison cell, she climbs to free him carrying his sword between her teeth. Director Misumi can do little with the lengthy dialogue scenes but finishes the show with a spectacular series of swordfights atop a tiled roof, as the glow of the fires lights up the sky. Although he pays the price of villainy, the terrorist is given a touching farewell as he fulfills his promise to a little girl. As this is the last episode in Volume 2, with four more to go, we wonder how the next installment will begin -- the final image is Kyoshiro's stern face, lit by the red flames of the burning city.
The four DVD discs in AnimEigo's The Sleepy Eyes of Death Collector's Set Volume 2 contain beautifully transferred enhanced widescreen encodings of the four features. Although newer techniques are sneaking in -- handheld camerawork, tinted flashbacks -- the overall style of the pictures emphasizes traditional pictorial values, with graphic compositions that utilize the horizontal extremes of the 'scope frame. Extras include trailers, production notes (text explanations for cultural details in the dialogue) and stills. The presentation can't be faulted for quality.
At the same time he was dazzling samurai fans with his Full-Moon-Cut sword technique, Raizo Ichikawa was starring in another Daiei film series about the adventures of a Ninja warrior, Shinobi no mono. His stature as one of the biggest Japanese stars of the 1960s still hasn't subsided, and many samurai film fans prefer these intrigue-based thrillers to the genre's later emphasis on bloody violence and gore. After Ichikawa's untimely death, Kenji Misumi would continue as a prolific director of the more extreme samurai adventures, most notably the notoriously sanguine Lone Wolf and Cub "Baby Cart" movies.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.