Sunday, January 13, 2013

Full Circle: The Full Moon Cut Completes Its Arc In Animeigo’s “Sleepy Eyes Of Death Collector’s Set 3”

 Nemuri Kyoshiro’s “Full Moon Cut” is the stuff of chanbara legend. It’s Zatoichi’s cane sword and dice tricks. It’s Hanzo the Razor and his big friend’s training regimen. It’s Tange Sazen’s one-eyed leer and Musashi’s two-sword style. It’s the baby cart and ‘horse slaying’ sword technique. It’s Mifune’s scratching. The mesmerizing Full Moon Cut has Kyoshiro start with the blade pointed down towards the ground to his right and then slowly rotating the blade in a complete circle. By the time the sword completes the circle, he claims, the enemy duelist will be dead. The mystery of the technique became emphasized over the course of the ‘Nemuri Kyoshiro’ series of films by strobing the sword in motion. Indeed, no one who was the target of the Full Moon Cut walked away unscathed. In Animeigo’s new release, the “Sleepy Eyes Of Death Collector’s Set 3”, the series itself comes full circle, finishing the arc of twelve ‘Nemuri Kyoshiro’ films, mirroring the ‘Full Moon Cut’ in its ‘excellence of execution’. 

This is the third and final boxed set of “Nemuri Kyoshiro” films that starred Ichikawa Raizo as the title character, and is the first of the trilogy where all four films were previously unreleased in the United States. You can check out the Shogun-ki’s reviews of Set One and Set Two to see what came before. With four films in the set, instead of our usual lengthy recap we’ll just run short summaries for each followed by our observations.

Film nine in the “Sleepy Eyes” series and first in the box is “A Trail Of Traps” (Nemuri Kyoshiro Burai-Hikae Masho No Hada, 1967). And it’s just what the title suggests. Kyoshiro is caught up in an incredibly intricate plot that includes corrupt officials, devil worshippers, a golden statue of Mary, and some situations that take the concept of “Deus ex machina” to a whole new level. Not only is the ‘secret origin’ of Kyoshiro presented, but we find out he has a sister who’s dying. She’s a hidden Christian and has sent an acolyte to request Kyoshiro come visit her before she dies. Meanwhile, Shogunate officials in the Asahina clan have seized a golden statue of Mary, a statue that the cultists of the Kuroyubi-to (a group of fallen Christians, the cult of the Black Finger) are determined to recover. They ‘hire’ Kyoshiro to guard the statue on its way to Kyoto. And of course, everyone’s looking to kill him for one reason or another. Can Kyoshiro survive poison tea, acidic onsen, nuns packing heat, and even the old ‘assassin hidden under the floor’ trick? Well, since there are three more films in the set, probably, but it’s the journey, not the destination. And it’s a journey written in blood! 

Next is “Hell Is A Woman” (Nemuri Kyoshiro Onna Jigoku, 1968). Personally, we’ve always found women to be heavenly-then again, we’ve never met anything like the diabolic babes that cross paths with Kyoshiro. This entry is somewhat of a throwback to the earlier Kyoshiro films, dealing with the conflict between two factions of the Saeki clan battling it out for the top spot in the hierarchy. Each faction is headed up by a hired swordsman-one ultra-serious and hiding a secret, the other a hard-drinking goofball who wears the collected sword guards of his victims around his chest. And as usual, Kyoshiro finds himself drawn into a situation that he has no interest in. When attacking Kyoshiro head on proves troublesome, the Saeki retainers try catching Kyoshiro with honey…of the female variety. Is there ANYONE in a “Sleepy Eyes” film that isn’t a duplicitous, black hearted, self-serving bastard?

And the bastards get even sicker and more depraved in the next film. “In The Spider’s Lair” (Nemuri Kyoshiro Hito Hada Gumo, 1968) Kyoshiro runs across a town that has been stripped of its young people. Why? They’ve been kidnapped and are being held by the living dead. In this case, not zombies or vampires, but something even worse-two psychotic children of the Shogun who have been exiled and declared dead (they legally don’t exist, so nothing can be done to them by local officials) for their crimes against humanity. Among other hobbies, the brother practices archery by shooting arrows at released captives and is adept at all forms of poison. The sister is a classic black widow, using men to pleasure her and having them killed afterward. When they kidnap the young charge of one of Kyoshiro’s few friends in the world, it’s sometimes hard to tell who the bigger psycho is-the siblings or Kyoshiro.

Wrapping up the set is “Castle Menagerie” (Nemuri Kyoshiro Akujo-gari, 1969). This is perhaps the strangest Nemuri Kyoshiro film in the series-and that’s saying something. While Kyoshiro is no stranger to rape and murder, when it’s someone else doing it and leaving messages at the scene that name Kyoshiro as the culprit-well, that’s another story. Once again, it’s hidden Christians at the root of it all, having made a deal with the head of the Ooku (the Shogun’s harem in Edo castle), Nishiki-no-koji. It seems there’s a race on to see which of the Ooku’s rival factions will produce the Shogun’s heir first. When a concubine from the other faction gets pregnant first, Nishiki-no-koji contrives to have the baby ‘aborted’-directly or indirectly. Kyoshiro’s ‘shadow’ stalks the countryside putting her plans into effect, and like the original he’s also a master of the signature Full Moon Cut. As if this isn’t enough, Kyoshiro also has to contend with a flock of dancing white cranes and black crows who want him to interject his spirit into a Noh mask. Yes, rilly. The final showdown of ‘Full Moon Cuts’ between Kyoshiro and his ‘shadow’ provides a fitting end to the set. 

“A Trail Of Traps” is perhaps the best of all the Kyoshiro films. Director Ikehiro Kazuo not only seemed to have a better handle on the nature of the character and what differentiated him from the stereotyped ‘noble ronin’ characters that infest Japanese chanbara films of this era, but also did it with a sense of style that action films often lack. His short version of the ‘origin of Nemuri Kyoshiro’ in the beginning of the film has no dialogue and is played out largely against a black background, with only the actors and their props seen on screen. It’s much like a Japanese Noh play (something Ikehiro was to repeat in spades for ‘Castle Menagerie’-more on that in a bit) but tells the viewer everything they need to know. People fade in and out of the blackness, and in tone it brings to mind any number of Hammer Horror classics from the 1960’s. The soundtrack is also quite eclectic, shifting from the spaghetti-western style music of the opening that underlines Kyoshiro’s ‘anti-hero’ status to more traditional Japanese music for the ‘normal’ areas of the film to standard ‘fight’ music for the action scenes. There are shots of Kyoshiro from directly overhead, passing down a paved lane at night that bisects the screen-and then is set upon by a perfect circle of attackers that come in from the edges of the screen. In these and other shots, Ikehiro gives up a bit of art with our action, making “A Trail Of Traps” an excellent visual experience. The set piece traps also border on the unbelievable, and unlike some of the previous Kyoshiro films, this one’s loaded with swarms of ninja flipping, leaping, and dying. Some of the situations require you to believe that the plotters knew months in advance that Kyoshiro was going to stumble into their plot and placed their agents in positions to befriend him. All of this gives the film a somewhat surreal quality that works to its advantage. The traps are worthy of the ones used by Batman villains on the 60’s TV show-I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a poisoned onsen (a Japanese hot spring) used as a murder weapon. And of course that warped Kyoshiro sense of justice shows up as well-in the course of avenging the death of a man who was killed to procure his ‘loaded dice’, he lops the arm off a thug because the thug’s girlfriend truly loves the now-disarmed mook. “You can’t throw dice or hold a knife with one arm, but you can still make love to a woman,” says Kyoshiro as he casually strolls off. 

“Hell Is A Woman” takes the series back to more familiar chanbara territory, more like the first three or so Kyoshiro films. Director Tanaka Tokuzo helmed a wide variety of jidaigeki films including Zatoichi and Shinobi No Mono films (not to mention the very first Kyoshiro film, “The Chinese Jade”) and turns in an entertaining film that delivers what its audience came to see. It lacks the Christian/Black Mass elements of the other three films in this set but certainly doesn’t skimp on the action. While the character of Kyoshiro was misogynistic in the previous nine films, this one takes the cake in that aspect. In his defense, pretty much every single one of the women involved deserve it. The two ronin hired to lead the swordsmen of the Saeki clan’s warring factions are the most interesting part of the film. One is your stereotypical strong, silent type. Interestingly, he physically resembles Kyoshiro quite a bit-same type of robe, same type of waist wrap, facially similar, same rooster tuft of hair. And like Kyoshiro, he also has daddy issues. It seems Kyoshiro sees their similarities and despite the fact that he’s an enemy tries uncharacteristically to intervene on his behalf and prevent him from committing patricide. The other ronin is just as stereotypical-a sloppy and loudmouthed cur that’s only interested in making a buck and then getting drunk. He wears a garland of tsuba (sword guards) bandolier style-but if he’s won that many duels and captured so many swords, why does his katana have a bamboo blade? He’s also got the best moment in the film-after a sequence where he’s pinching pennies when buying a real katana with his first ‘paycheck’, he grimaces after Kyoshiro breaks the blade in two and says “Well, you get what you pay for”! 

It’s back to depravity and twisted samurai for the next film, “In The Spider’s Lair”. Ladies and gents, if you thought the daimyo in some of Animeigo’s recent releases (Bushido: Cruel Code Of The Samurai, Eleven Samurai, The Great Killing, 13 Assassins) were heartless and psychotic, they’ve got nothing on the pair in this film. Brother and sister, they’re proud of the fact that they’re legally ‘dead’ and think nothing of kidnapping dozens of people just to serve their murderous whims. They don’t display a single shred of decency in the entire film. Kyoshiro is targeted by the sister, who after finding out that he’s a child of The Black Mass, decides she absolutely HAS to have him. Kyoshiro for his part seems fascinated with her-a being of pure evil, who doesn’t display any of the hypocrisy he so despises. In fact, she’s one of the few evil women in the series he ends up not killing. Her brother seems to have quite the unhealthy interest in her as well, as does her henchman, a large brute with a staff that serves as her enforcer. This is also one of the rare times in the series where we see Kyoshiro brought down-he takes a poisoned arrow to the shoulder but is luckily saved by a Shogunate official who wants his help in bringing ultimate justice to the siblings. But of course, he turns out to be a scheming backstabber as well. This film points firmly in the direction Japanese jidaigeki films were going to take in the 70’s-increased violence, torture, sexual depravity, and over-the-top set pieces. It would fit right into the ‘Hanzo the Razor’ series. Director Yasuda Kimiyoshi had also directed prior entries in the series along with Zatoichi films (some of the more extreme entries), horror films like Daimaijin, several ghost stories, even a ‘Hoodlum Priest’ movie, and puts his familiarity with cinematic violence and cruelty to good use. 

And lastly we have ‘Castle Menagerie’. By this time star Raizo was quite sick-he was to die from cancer just a few months after this film was released. Knowing this, you can see telltale signs onscreen-he often looks drawn, haggard, and tired, but it’s to Raizo’s credit that you can only spot it if you’re looking for it. Ikehiro Kazuo returned to the director’s chair and turned in an entry that was even more visually stunning and surreal than “A Trail Of Traps”. The film hits the ground running with ‘Nemuri Kyoshiro’ slaying a government official and later, after raping a woman, (off screen) carving (what else) ‘Nemuri Kyoshiro Raped This Woman’ into her flesh. But when the government official’s daughter shows up looking for revenge, Kyoshiro denies having done any of this. And he hasn’t-it’s his ‘shadow’, another child of the Black Mass and a hidden Christian who’s working to secure the freedom of his fellow worshippers. He’s an eerie sight, dressing like Kyoshiro and even wearing a creepy, expressionless Kyoshiro mask-it’s almost like watching a character from a late 70’s/early 80’s slasher film. A nice touch is that Kyoshiro really doesn’t care that he’s doing all this-he was only curious as to what his motivation was. At times it seems that there’s little difference between the real and fake Kyoshiro-in fact, the fake seems to come off as more noble-he’s doing it for a cause, whereas Kyoshiro only acts out of boredom and self-interest. The show-stopping moment in the film comes when Kyoshiro is set upon by a flock of dancing white cranes and black crows-or at least, ninja who drop from the sky dressed as such. Rather than attack, they ‘dance’ him into a room where the wife of a dead Noh mask maker requests that he infuse her husband’s greatest creation with his spirit-by making love to the woman wearing it. Happens all the time, right? The unplussed Kyoshiro naturally agrees but then asks Miss Noh why she has the body of a whore when she claims to be a virgin, and by the way, is that poison lipstick on her mask? The big payoff comes when the Noh Masks ‘hanging’ on the darkened walls of the large room come to life and attack, exposing themselves as the ‘crows’ who had blended into the darkness. In the course of slaying them all, Kyoshiro kills the last by killing ‘himself’-striking his reflection in a mirror to skewer the woman behind it. But he has failed to kill his shadow after all, as his ‘evil twin’ appears to take him down. Director Ikehiro ended the Raizo run on ‘Sleepy Eyes’ on a high note with Kyoshiro fighting Kyoshiro, each employing the deadly Full Moon Cut. All this, and we haven’t even mentioned Kyoshiro’s adventures in the Ooku or preventing an illegal abortion because the perceived hypocrisy of the mother pissed him off… 

The Kyoshiro series, and indeed the studio that produced it, was not to survive Raizo’s passing long. There were actually two more films in Daiei’s “Nemuri Kyoshiro” series-“Full Moon Swordsman” and “Flyfot Swordplay”. Both starred Matsukata Hiroki in the role Raizo made famous. Matsukata was a fine actor in his own right, known more for his roles as a tough guy in Yakuza films at the time. He’s appeared in such well-known films as “Battles Without Honor Or Humanity”, “Ichi”, “Father Of The Kamikaze”, “Izo”, and the recent Miike Takashi remake of “13 Assassins”. He turned in a solid performance as Kyoshiro, but Raizo had made the role his own. Japanese audiences didn’t accept Matsukata as Kyoshiro and the films performed poorly at the box office. And only two years after Raizo’s death, Daiei studios followed suit, declaring bankruptcy in 1971. Still, it might be worth Animeigo’s while to look into releasing the final two films here in the US, perhaps as some sort of ‘double feature’ disc, truly bringing the series to a close. 

The transfer on the films is solid-while it isn’t as eye-poppingly gorgeous as Animeigo’s recent release of the “Lone Wolf And Cub” films on Blu-ray, it’s still quite excellent. Each film gets its own disc instead of being crammed onto one or two, and they’re in an attractive trifold insert. We noticed that while Animeigo’s translations and subtitles are still the best in the business, this time around they seemed a bit edgier and less formal than usual. Lines such as Kyoshiro being told “What’s that look? You look like you’ve never been laid before!” or a woman being told by Kyoshiro that “Let’s see what it’s like to screw the Grim Reaper!” come off wonderfully in their context and fit the mood of the films perfectly. Extras are a bit thin-each of the four films has its own trailer along with one for another recent Animeigo release and image galleries of lobby cards and stills. Program Notes (one of the most enjoyable things on an Animeigo release and something that sets them apart from other companies) are extremely slim, being only one short entry for three of the films (along with director bios). 

One of the final lines of dialogue spoken by Raizo in his film career takes place at the end of Castle Menagerie: “There can only be one Kyoshiro”, to which his doppelganger replies “Your evil name will live on eternally…”. Did writer Miyagawa Ichiro and director Ikehiro, knowing of Raizo’s sickness, insert these lines into his final scene as a fitting tribute to his tragically short career? They proved to be apropos-the demise of the ‘Sleepy Eyes’ series showed that Japanese filmgoers believed there was only one Kyoshiro. And this release by Animeigo helps to insure that Raizo’s name will indeed live on eternally. With this set, the Full Moon Cut has now come Full Circle-but unlike its victims, viewers will have the luxury of an unpunctured body afterwards. 

“Sleepy Eyes Of Death Collector’s Set 3 will be released February the 12th. You can pick it up on Amazon or get a steep discount by buying it direct from Animeigo

All photos courtesy and copyright of Kadokawa Pictures 2013.

1 comment:

  1. I really like the two post Raizo films with Matsukata ,they often get ignored because of Hiroki but he actually does a great job .