Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Reawakening Of "Sleepy Eyes Of Death"

Years ago, I remember buying my first film on VHS from Animeigo/Samurai Cinema-I believe it was Mifune’s “Samurai Banners”. After the film finished, there were three previews for other samurai-related films released by Animeigo. These were three of the most outrageous and violent films that my burgeoning interest in jidaigeki had seen-the first was a “Lone Wolf And Cub” film and the second featured what’s still one of my favorite action sequences from the “Hanzo The Razor” series (where assassins break into Hanzo’s booby-trapped house while he’s lounging in his bathtub with a Buddhist nun). The third showcased a badass samurai who effortlessly dispatched a dozen ninja or so before polishing off their leader with something he called the “Full Moon Cut”. I have a feeling this set of three previews (which ran with almost all of Animeigo’s releases) achieved a certain status of their own with fans of the genre, and in my case told me that Samurai Cinema was run by my kind of people. I was more than a little disappointed when I found out that only the Lone Wolf films were still available and the other two were nigh on impossible to find and outrageously pricy when you did. Still, I managed to put together the Hanzo trilogy with two VHS’s and a Laser Disc, but the other series-“Sleepy Eyes of Death”-proved to be much harder. It took years to find five of the six releases on original VHS, and I never did run across a copy of the sixth. Thankfully, Animeigo reacquired the license and has re-released the first four films in the “Sleepy Eyes of Death/Nemuri Kyoshiro” series in a well done DVD boxed set.

“Sleepy Eyes” star Ishikawa Raizo packed a lot of films into a relatively short career before his untimely death at the age of 37, and most fans of jidaigeki agree that his signature character was Nemuri Kyoshiro, “Son of the Black Mass”-the bitter half-breed ronin and master of the Full Moon Cut. Based on a series of novels by Shibata Renzaburo, the series was to span 14 films (the last two featuring a new actor who took over after Ishikawa’s death) and became increasingly bizarre, bloody, and violent as it went.

The four discs in the set (originally released in 1963 and 1964) are as follows:

“The Chinese Jade”-the first entry in the series is based on actual history involving an infamous merchant/smuggler in the Maeda domain of Kaga, one Zeniya Gohei. Here, Zeniya has been executed by Lord Maeda in order to cover up the clan's involvement in a profitable smuggling ring-and to confiscate Zeniya’s gold in the process. However, as luck would have it, Zeniya’s not quite dead yet-and both he and Maeda vie to recruit master swordsman Nemuri Kyoshiro. Up for grabs is the Chinese Jade, a statue hidden by Zeniya that contains a document that would spell doom for the Maeda clan were it to find its way into the hands of the Shogunate. Very little of Kyoshiro’s background is examined here, aside from a short segment involving his training. It seems the film is trying to set Kyoshiro up as an avenger of the common man and a noble ronin, complete with a support group of thieves, yakuza, and his sensei (all of whom were dropped after this film). Cast notables include Wakiyama Tomisaburo as Zeniya’s monkish enforcer, Chen Sun, and Date Saburo (who appears in three of the four of the films in the set as different characters) as Zeniya. While the film features excellent swordplay, plenty of dying ninja, gorgeous gals, an involving story, and Raizo’s cool yet intense performance, it has been criticized for humanizing the ‘nihilistic’ Kyoshiro too much, particularly the ending. We disagree-having always seen Kyoshiro as an idealist at heart, and like most idealists he becomes increasingly bitter, skeptical, and resentful as the majority of the people he runs across fall short of his expectations. It’s interesting to follow the progress of this characterization through the series as Kyoshiro becomes more and more hardened, raping innocents, and eventually killing people with no provocation-even unarmed women. Through it all, the spark of idealism still remains-there are moments in most of his films where a good and decent person will bring a moment of joy to him, or give him a reason to fight for them. This inner conflict gives expression to some of the cooler lines uttered in jidaigeki flicks, including my personal favorite from part nine: “The last person he saw in this world was me. What an unlucky man he was”.

“Sword of Adventure” introduces a theme that will run throughout much of the series-the spoiled bastard children of Shogun Ienari. The plot involves the efforts of the Shogunate’s elderly finance minister, Asahina Iori, to reform the currency system and put a stop to the elaborate expenditures of the Shogun’s court (this, too, is based on actual history). Naturally, he falls afoul of the corrupt ministers who have been profiting all along-but his biggest enemy turns out to be Princess Taka, whose huge annual stipend has been cut through Asahina’s action. Kyoshiro takes a liking to the old man and becomes his defacto bodyguard. Before the final resolution there are deceitful women, poison, ambushes, a rigged duel with a foe who might be Kyoshiro’s superior, and five master swordsmen he must overcome. We actually found old man Iori to be much more entertaining to watch than Kyoshiro, and the developing friendship between the two engaging.

“Full Circle Killing” introduces another of Ienari’s bastards, Katagiri Takayuki, whose supporters and mother have been killing off the Shogun’s legitimate heirs in order to leave him in position to inherit the Shogunate. Katagiri is a violent psycho who has been installed with a twisted version of Bushido by his mother-he enjoys testing out his collection of rare swords by killing peasants in a slum on the outskirts of Edo. Kyoshiro becomes involved when he wanders by the scene of one of the slayings, and further drawn in when Katagiri covets his exquisite Musou Masamune blade. Between protecting the villagers, keeping them from implementing their own ineffectual plans for revenge, and retaining the Musou Masamune, Kyoshiro has his hands full. An interesting moment here is when Kyoshiro explains the style of the Full Moon Cut, ending with the familiar boast that “…no opponent has ever lived to see the circle completed”.

The last film in the set, "Sword of Seduction", takes the series to new extremes-both storywise and in a visual sense. Kyoshiro is approached by a Christian on the run and beseeched to guard their saint, "The Virgin Shima" (who may or may not have familial ties to Kyoshiro). While Kyoshiro refuses, he goes to the man's aid after he is captured and being prepared for crucifixion. The Christian's sister has won his freedom (by 'converting' a Western missionary to Buddhism by seducing him), but not only has the Shogunate not honored their promise to free him but the depraved and disfigured Princess Kiku (another of Shogun Ienari's bastards) has arranged for her to be gang raped in front of her brother at the execution grounds. While Kyoshiro is unable to save the two, he manages to disrupt Kiku's 'entertainment' and send her scurrying back to Edo castle. Kyoshiro sets out to find the Virgin Shima, and while on the road faces an incredible series of ambushes, seductions, ninja assaults, and betrayals. Some of the most impressive set pieces to be found in the series are on display, and after further humiliating Princess Kiku (destroying her without killing her), Kyoshiro finds the Virgin Shima and confronts the group of opium smugglers that have been working with Kiku-including his monkish nemesis from part one, Chen Sun. After this final battle, Kyoshiro learns the truth behind the circumstances of his birth-a revelation that was to have a major influence on the further films in the series. This film not only has a glorious progression of well thought out action scenes, but also some of the more impressive "WTF?" moments in the Nemuri saga. One of these would be Chen Sun breaking off the ending battle to jump overboard for no reason in particular. Perhaps the most impressive one, however, occurs when the Western missionary has been released from prison after having been 'converted' to Buddhism. Kyoshiro comes galloping into the frame astride a horse and brandishing a sword, screams out "Go to Hell!", and sends the fallen Christian's head rolling (many critics seem to think that this was Kyoshiro's father-however, the evidence within the film points to this not being the case, not to mention the two are played by different actors). Perhaps the most impressive innovation is how the "Full Moon Cut" is now filmed in time lapse photography-adding a new dimension to its alleged hypnotic effect and giving it a supernatural feel. This film is a turning point in the series-it is from here that Kyoshiro's dark side really begins to take hold, and the succeeding films were to become increasingly violent and twisted. While Kyoshiro claims in the final Raizo installment (part 12, Castle Menagerie) that he has never killed someone who has not attacked him first, he seems to conveniently forget his victims such as the aforementioned missionary and an unarmed nun he slaughters at the end of the film.

All four of the films in the set are winners, and get stronger with each installment. They all feature the excellent set design and costuming that one sees in virtually every jidaigeki film of the 60's, along with solid cinematography and soundtracks. The casts are loaded with chambara veterans from Daei studios and packed with starlets to boot. Having all four in the same package makes for interesting viewing as one follows the progression of Kyoshiro's character-from a rather normal 'justice seeking noble ronin' in part one to the heartless killer of part four. It's rare to see a chambara hero that goes from shouting at the heavens over the loss of the one precious thing in life (when Chisa is killed at the end of part one) to proclaiming that women are nothing more than sex objects. Likewise, he has little sense of duty or obligation-rare in a genre where the conflict of duty versus self comprise the engine that runs many plots. Unarmed missionaries and nuns fall to his blade and innocent women are raped by him. Kyoshiro was the forebearer of the even more extreme antiheroes of the 70's in the "Lone Wolf" and "Hanzo the Razor" films.

Animeigo's packaging for the box set is striking with a black and white image of Kyoshiro in the middle of performing the Full Moon Cut set against a blood red background. The four discs are arranged in a gatefold sleeve decorated with images from the series with a booklet taking up one section of the sleeve. As for the DVD’s, the color and picture quality are sharp and the soundtracks have no audible hissing or popping. Subtitling is excellent and the translation is good-although one of my favorite lines, the infamous “I love you, man!” from part III was changed for the current release.

Each disc contains various extras that not only feature production stills, trailers, and cast/crew bios but also help explain the intricacies of Japanese culture and history as portrayed in the films. There’s much less history to be explained in the Sleepy Eyes series than in, say, the Shinobi No Mono films, so the program notes focus on Japanese culture. The presentation is largely accurate with a few typos and minor errors (such as stating that Kawanakajima is located in Echigo province). Each one of the discs has an interactive map spotlighting the locations used or talked about in the film along with more historical notes. Ric Meyers provides a commentary on the first disc that covers the first four films as a whole and is joined by author/martial artist Jeff Rovin. Meyers was responsible for one of the worst film commentary tracks we’ve heard on Animeigo’s Shinobi No Mono 2 disc, but here (and also on the commentary he provided for the “Shogun Assassin” boxed set) he’s actually quite good. Sticking to movie trivia and cinema history, he provides quite a bit of useful information on the stars, the studios, and the film series as a whole. And even though he STILL mangles the Japanese language, he’s at least getting better in this regard too. Hey, he’s trying! There are color and b/w stills for each film in the series and cast/crew bios unique and specific for each (rather than just running Raizo’s bio for every one). Each disc has five trailers-usually for the current and next films in the Nemuri series, one for a Shinobi No Mono entry, and two other Animeigo releases that the director of the current film also helmed. One of the discs even shows a gallery of the packaging Animeigo used for their ‘Sleepy Eyes’ VHS and Laserdisc releases. There’s also a booklet included that gives a general outline of the series, some background on the Edo period, and a history of Christianity in Japan during this time. Finishing it out are a couple of reviews taken from Pat Galloway’s “Stray Dogs and Lone Wolves” along with some other cast and crew information including Raizo.

Whether you’re replacing those worn-out VHS copies or taking your first steps into the Nemuri Kyoshiro saga, this DVD set fits the bill perfectly. Hopefully Animeigo will be releasing the next four films (that have recently been remastered in Japan) at some point. No samurai film collection is complete without the “Sleepy Eyes” films, so get the set now-before it goes the way of those ninja in that long-ago trailer…

You can get the Sleepy Eyes of Death Vol. I Box Set (the first four films) directly from Animeigo here or from Amazon through the SA Store here.


  1. Nice review for what has to be one of my favorite series of jidai-geki flicks!

  2. Nice job, and good catch with the Kawanakajima/Echigo thing. You are the proofreader supreme!

  3. Thanks, guys-coming from the guy who 'wrote the book' on samurai films and his crony 'the wise man', it means something!