I feel somewhat ashamed. See, I’m coming to this fascination of mine with samurai films much later than most, and I’d never ever heard of the SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH series of films until I happened across an online article detailing upcoming releases. I did some research, and, now, I’m able to struggle through my penance for not learning of them sooner. (I’ll cover some of why I think that is in the review below.) While probably not everyone’s cup of tea, they’re still a delight – all four films included in this set – that deserve to be explored by a much wider audience, and I can only hope my few humble words of praise about them help in that regard. I know I’ll definitely be talking them up to my online fellows and beyond every chance I get.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and character. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
This set contains four films exploring the adventures of Nemuri Kyoshiro (as played by the late, great Raizo Ichikawa), and I’ll try to give a quick summary (and critical summation) of each:
A TRAIL OF TRAPS: Kyoshiro is drawn into a conflict with officials hell bent on securing a golden statue from a beautiful, innocent girl and her elderly father who has more than a few secrets up his sleeve. The journey to return the statue to its proper place will put the samurai at odds with a cult of devil worshippers, and only his Full Moon Cut – the most dangerous move in all of swordplay – can save him from their taunts. Much of the film feels a bit obligatory – there’s a deadly booby trap with an almost laughably easy escape – but it’s better-than-average entertainment value comes from Ichikawa’s performance as a kind of Grim Reaper who doesn’t take crap from anyone. (4 out of 5 stars)
HELL IS A WOMAN: I’ll admit this one is a bit of a mystery to me as most reading I’ve done in research of this series suggests this tale of warring retainers competing for control after the current Lord dies is one of the best in all the Sleepy Eyes of Death franchise. For my tastes, I found most of the story more than a bit convoluted at best as Kyoshiro seems to mostly wander from one ‘event’ to the next. Still, I’d heartily agree that most of the features contains some of the most inspired and memorable cinematography of all the samurai films I’ve seen. The ending – it’s a showdown shot in the backdrop of a beautiful snowfall – is stuff most directors only dream of. It’s legendary. The rest of the story? Meh. (3 out of 4 stars)
IN THE SPIDER’S LAIR: A brother-and-sister team descended from Shogun have lost their minds, and they’ve taken to torturing and terrorizing the peasants of a nearby village. An elderly friend of Kyoshiro pleads with the samurai to bring it all to an end or to, at least, save the young man he’s raised as his own from their dungeons, but, as usual, Kyoshiro refuses to get involved. Intrigued by his refusal to help, the siblings then turn their eyes toward the samurai, and they get much, much more than they bargained for by drawing him into their web. Clearly, this is one of the most easily accessible tales in this set, and the wicked nastiness of the villains matches the stoic intensity by which Kyoshiro lives. It’s perfect. Don’t touch a thing. (5 out of 5 stars)
CASTLE MENAGERIE: Kyoshiro’s not above having a bad name, but when someone dons his disguise and starts raping and murdering innocents in his name, the samurai takes matters into his own hands to uncover why. It’s another winning adventure – set against the light format of a procedural investigation – and it involves much skullduggery and royal double-crossing. Again, you can’t help but root for the part-protagonist/part-antagonist Kyoshiro to clear his name, even at the risk of destroying an entire religion. (5 out of 5 stars)
I’m certainly not learned enough to give an in-depth explanation as to why more fans haven’t heard of this film series, but I’d be willing to venture the best educated guess I can provide. There have been several adaptations (four, to be specific) made from the original source novels exploring this character created by Renzaburo Shibata. Whereas most films involving samurais or ronin tend to explore the nobility or “righteousness” of a lone warrior compared against a class of fighters who’ve collectively lost, subverted, or (worse) perverted their way, Nemuri Kyoshiro is a feared soldier who lives by his own creed … and that “creed” is largely defined by whatever need Kyoshiro is trying to serve that day (though one consistency is certainly that he’ll always prefer sex as a form of payment for his services). Kyoshiro is a true anti-hero, and, as such, he lacks most of the traits and attributes typically associated with the classical champion. First, his was an illicit birth – he’s the half-breed son of a Japanese noblewoman raped by a Christian missionary during a Black Mass. Second, most (if not all) of his needs are entirely personal – he’ll fight for money, fortune, fame, and sex, though ‘fortune’ and ‘fame’ are of little concern to him. Lastly, his code of morality is entirely flexible (with the sole exception being sex or ‘the virginity of a woman’ as he likes to call it) – what he stands for is entirely convenient to whatever mission is at hand, but there’s always a measure of personal gain or notoriety for himself.
This series – made at the height of the 1960’s – is imbued with the same selfish consciousness depicted throughout so many spaghetti westerns (extraordinarily popular at the time); just as many of those have somewhat vanished into the bottom drawers of history, I think so too have these tales. After all, we (culturally) tend to pass on and endorse tales that only show “the best of ourselves” to subsequent generations, don’t we? Aren’t we concerned with the legacy of being a good people, one that would always and only stand for truth and justice? The tales of Kyoshiro – while admirable and often times respectful of a lone wolf who does the right thing for the wrong reasons – probably get lost in that shuffle, not so much as an embarrassment but more as a conscious choice to recommend only that which makes a people look good.
Of course, maybe I’m reading too much into it. I’d like to think that I’m on to something there – certainly I’d argue that there’s a grain of truth in so basic an observation about the longevity of an anti-hero. And I’d be a fool if I didn’t remind readers that anti-heroes have always had a place in history; they tend to rear their ugly heads whenever we, as a society, lose faith in the institutions we hold so dear, speaking out as if from the grave to remind us that things are never so rosy as they would seem. You’d be a fool to dismiss Kyoshiro as much as you’d be a fool to underestimate Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name,’ Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken, or Jason Statham in almost anything he’s played in the last ten years. Anti-heroes have their place in our hearts; they always have, and they always will. You should get to know Kyoshiro; he’s definitely someone to have at your side … so long as you can afford his “rates.”
SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH: COLLECTOR’S SET VOL. 3 is a series of films produced by Daiei Studios. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled through AminEigo. As for the technical specifications, everything on these four films looks and sounds terrific in these transfers. For those who wish to know, these are Japanese spoken language films with English sub-titles; furthermore, there are some additional sub-titles provided to clarify some historical and/or cultural references made within each of these films; so viewers might need to be prepared to hit the ‘pause’ for a few seconds in order to do some extra reading (and, yes, it helped my understanding). As for the special features, it’s a bare bones set including original theatrical trailers, program notes, actor bios, and some image galleries. Maybe it ain’t perfect, but it’s nice to have what is here.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE. This is an often overlooked or curious forgotten series of samurai films that deserves your attention. Fans of Bushido films or jidaigeki pictures would do well to pick up a set today. I know I’ll be invested serious time in watching these again, especially the one or two so revered that I didn’t quite agree with the larger critics circle; I need to figure out what I missed!
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at AnimEigo provided me with a DVD screener copy of SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH: COLLECTOR’S SET VOL. 3 by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
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