Monday, April 04, 2011

Animeigo's Sleepy Eyes of Death Set 2: Good...Bad...He's The Guy With The Sword

As a ronin dressed in black walks down a lonely road, a young woman approaches from the opposite direction. They pass each other without incident, but suddenly the ronin spins around. In one fluid motion he draws his sword, strikes the woman down, replaces the blade, and continues on his way as if nothing had happened. While this would normally mark him as the villain of the piece, this is the Sleepy Eyes of Death series. Here, the slaughter of an unarmed woman by protagonist Nemuri Kyoshiro (Ichikawa Raizo) is not only justified, but practically demanded by the audience. Good...bad...he's the guy with the sword (apologies to Bruce Campbell).

The Sleepy Eyes of Death Collector's Set Vol. 2, Animeigo's newest DVD collection of Nemuri Kyoshiro films (that's what we purists like to call 'em) collects films five through eight in the series:

5-"Sword of Fire"-Kyoshiro is reminded why he doesn't like involving himself in other people's problems when, after lending aid to a woman pursuing a vendetta (with the attendant promise of sexual favors afterwards), he becomes the focal point of a three way conspiracy involving pirates, the Todo samurai clan, and greedy merchant Narumi. When everyone seems to be a crook, how do you make sure they all end up getting what they deserve? Kyoshiro is particularly brutal towards women during the course of this film, as he sexually assaults virtually every one that has more than 10 seconds of screen time.

6-"Sword of Satan"-when Kyoshiro insults the pride of a fallen woman of status, he becomes guilt-ridden after finding out his harsh words drove her to suicide. Wearing her discarded Noh mask as a reminder, he sets out to help Tsurumatsu, a young boy she had been trying to protect. He's the illegitimate son of the Iwashiro daimyo and was spirited away from the clan when marked for death by supporters of the rightful heir. When the heir dies, however, the clan is desperate to reclaim him to avoid being disbanded by the Shogunate. One problem-the kid hates samurai and has no intention of returning. As if fighting an entire clan isn't bad enough, Kyoshiro also has to deal with yet another scheming woman. Orin is the sister of "Banzo The Flying Squirrel" (who attacked Kyoshiro and was killed). She misses no opportunity to attack, betray, and generally be a pain in Kyoshiro's ass.

7-"The Mask of the Princess"-returning from part four ("Sword of Seduction") is the disfigured Princess Kiku. Having been set up and humiliated by Kyoshiro in that film, she sets out to make him-and everyone he comes in contact with-regret ever having crossed her path. Kiku and her Bushu Hayate ninja group don't care how much collateral damage they rack up in trying to off Kyoshiro, and the body count is high. Did we mention there's a great Black Mass scene in this film that gives Kyoshiro another excuse to cut down a fallen Christian priest? While it has little to do with the rest of the film, it's still the high point. This one is particularly enjoyable for the excellent direction by Inoue Akira, but more on that later.

8-"Sword Of Villainy"-when the followers of an executed would-be reformer plan to burn down the city of Edo to retaliate, Kyoshiro finds himself in the uncomfortable position of siding with the Tokugawa Bakufu-a prospect usually anathema to him. This is somewhat of a throwback to the early 'Sleepy Eyes' films as Kyoshiro now has a flunky in hairdresser/burglar Tetsu. You really have to pay attention in this film, as the plots and alliances are complex and overlapping. There's also a subplot where Kyoshiro is a dead ringer for a deceased rebel leader, but curiously this thread seems to lead nowhere (other than to provide a reason for Kyoshiro to be drawn in).

Our favorite from the set is probably "The Mask of the Princess", primarily for all the excellent directorial touches given to the film by Inoue Akira. For what was basically a programmer, Inoue does some amazing things with scene composition and particularly framing. Whether actors are filmed through the torn paper panels of shoji screens or between the slats of wooden windows, it gives the viewer a sense of eavesdropping on the conversation and reinforcing their secretive nature. Inoue also puts Raizo off center in many shots, filling the viewer with expectations of having the empty side of the frame filled-but by what? The film is full of subtle touches like this and after watching it once for the action it wouldn't be a bad idea to watch it again for the artistry. The other directors (Misumi Kenji on "Sword of Fire" and "Sword of Villainy" with Yasuda Kimiyoshi on "Sword of Satan") also have their moments, such as Misumi's 'First Person Perspective' sword attack in "Sword of Villainy", putting the viewer directly in Raizo's sandals as he carves his way through a host of attackers.

Don't fret, though-these aren’t art films that will have you taking a nap ten minutes in. The swordplay, blood, sex, and depraved goings-on that everyone watches a Kyoshiro film for are on full display. From a Black Mass to a woman about to lose her face to acid, the Kyoshiro universe features things you won't see in your typical samurai film-including a nude female acrobat jumping off a bridge to escape her pursuers, just because she can. There are executions, suicides, horny Christian nuns, a princess with a passing resemblance to Two-Face, murder frame-ups, cross-dressing actors, body mutilations, ninja monks, whores with masks, serial killers, and sexual encounters interrupted by snakes. Talk about symbolic. As set out in the opening paragraph, Kyoshiro's not above ravaging any woman he meets, not to mention callously striking down an unarmed woman that he deems evil. And twice during these two films, rival swordsmen attempt to beat Kyoshiro at his own game-engaging him in duels where they are also using Kyoshiro's trademark Full Moon Cut. There’s rarely a dull moment in Kyoshiro’s life-and he thrives on the action. Having dispatched his foes in "Sword of Fire" and helped a couple of deserving souls escape, he warns the last of the conspirators not to spoil his good mood, or he’ll kill him.

Much has been written about Kyoshiro being 'nihilistic', uncaring, misogynistic, and inhuman. Well, it's hard to argue with any of that-and those are the points that have gained the character such a cult following. He's the counterpoint to the typical samurai film hero, who would never behave in a less than honorable fashion. However, as we brought up in our review of the first four films, Kyoshiro has a bit more depth than that-indeed, he continues to demonstrate that at heart he's a frustrated idealist. In "Sword of Fire", after finding out he’s been duped into helping out Nui (the woman supposedly pursuing a vendetta), he devotes his time to helping out the pirates that have been marked for death by Nui’s employer, the Todo clan. "Sword of Satan" shows his guilt over having taunted a woman into suicide, and lending his aid to her charge Tsurumatsu. Kyoshiro ransoms a young maid, Haru, from a whorehouse in "The Mask of the Princess" before she can be defiled and then sets her up with steady employment elsewhere-all with no benefit to himself. When she’s kidnapped, he sets out to rescue her and even throws down his sword to ensure her safety. Finally, "Sword of Villainy" sees him do the same for the female acrobat, not to mention trying to save the city of Edo from being burned down. Kyoshiro’s humanity is buried deep, but he’s not the totally cynical, hateful monster he likes to pass himself off as (which also points to a large dose of self-loathing over his status as the half-breed son of a fallen foreign Christian-a self loathing that displays itself in Kyoshiro slaying the fallen Western missionaries he meets throughout the series).

Extras for the films are a bit on the light side, although there are several different trailers on each disc from Animeigo's extensive 'samurai cinema' line. The original trailer for each film is included as well, and some of these contain alternate footage and different takes than the finished film (notably the trailer for "Sword of Fire"). There are a few short bios and also cultural and historical 'liner notes' for each film. They're a bit on the sparse side this time around (although taken as a whole, they add up to what's on a typical Animeigo release). The notes for "Sword of Villainy" are more numerous and give some excellent information that even we hadn't known about (such as the Kuzunoha fox story and related poem, along with the rebellion of Oshio (Chusai) Heihachiro). The extras are rounded out by image galleries with stills from each film. As everyone has come to expect, Animeigo's translations are the best in the business-easy to read with lots of options to tailor the film to any individual's level of Japanese language skills. Even better for hardcore chanbara hounds, they also translate the entire list of credits. The films were taken from the re-mastered Japanese originals, with nice depth of color and cleaned up sound. The packaging even includes little touches like a fold out image on the cardboard inner DVD holder (and also a shot of the famous 'strobing effect' for Kyoshiro's Full Moon Cut). It's a solidly produced complete package.

This is Animeigo's second volume of "Sleepy Eyes" films, and a fine successor to the first. They've now released eight of the Raizo "Nemuri Kyoshiro" films, with four more to go. The four remaining films are the most bizarre, violent, and original of the dozen that Raizo starred in (after Raizo's untimely death, the series went on to a thirteenth and fourteenth film with a different actor in the lead role-while these are usually reviled by fans, we find them to be pretty good-it's just that Raizo defined the role to such a degree that he made anyone who came after look bad). So if you'd like to see Trail of Traps, Hell Is A Woman, In The Spider's Lair, and Castle Menagerie, make sure to get this set first. Not only will it convince Animeigo to release the final four, but you'll add four more classics to your present collection. We can't recall the last time Animeigo released a lemon (probably Demon Spies)-they've been on a roll for quite a few years now. Things are a bit rough for DVD producers in the current economy, so picking up this set will help keep the string of classic chanbara films coming. You can get a copy directly from Animeigo HERE or from Amazon through the SA Store.

All images copyright and courtesy 1965-66 Kadokawa Pictures Inc

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