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July 14, 2009

Sleepy Eyes of Death - Collector's Set, Volume 1

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Sleepy Eyes of Death 1: The Chinese Jade/Nemuri Kyoshiro Sappocho
Tokuzo Tanaka - 1963

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Sleepy Eyes of Death 2: Sword of Adventure/Nemuri Kyoshiro Shobu
Kenji Misumi - 1964

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Sleepy Eyes of Death 3: Full Circle Killing/Nemuri Kyoshiro Engetsugiri
Kimiyoshi Yasuda - 1964

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Sleepy Eyes of Death 4: Sword of Seduction/Nemuri Kyoshiro Joyoken
Kazuo Ikehiro - 1964
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

Until it made it's U.S. DVD debut, I was unfamiliar with the series of film starring Raizo Ichikawa as the ronin Nemuri Kyoshiro. The name Nemuri roughly translates as sleep. Released under the series title, The Sleepy Eyes of Death, the films were extremely popular in Japan until the untimely death of Ichikawa at age 37 from cancer. Even if cancer had not claimed Ichikawa, a look at his filmography suggests that he was working at a grueling pace, with not only twelve Nemuri Kyoshiro films made between 1963 and 1969, but other films as well, including seven films in the Shinobi no mono series made between 1962 and 1966. As popular as the series about the blind, swordfighting masseur, Zatoichi, the Nemuri Kyoshiro series were dependable moneymakers for Daiei Studios.

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Unlike the Zatoichi series, the Nemuri Kyoshiro series never received theatrical distribution in the U.S. There is no surprise in this primarily because the main character is nihilistic, the films end on a downbeat note, and the series is more culturally specific regarding the history of Japan during the 19th Century prior to the Meiji Restoration. The events take place in and around Edo, now Tokyo, when the Shogunate was corrupted by profligate spending, the Samurai were finding their power limited, and a new merchant class was emerging in financial and political influence. The general tone of the Nemuri Kyoshiro series is more serious than that of the more visceral and comic Zatoichi films.

Raizo Ichikawa's own sleepy eyes may remind a few of Robert Mitchum, albeit with a prettier face, but a similar, commanding low voice. Similar too is the attitude of someone who at least outwardly claims not to give a damn about anyone or anything. Kyoshiro not only is a masterless samurai, but he chooses to stay that way, often turning down work, but often fighting more or less reluctantly on behalf of those less powerful or marginalized by those in power. Women fight to be with him, be they princesses, courtesans, hostess or street walkers. With his brush of reddish hair, Ichikawa takes on the appearance of a fox. As a master swordsman, Kyoshiro is know for his technique of moving his sword in a wide circle, his victim slain before the circle is completed.

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The first four films, as noted, have four different directors. What is interesting is to watch the evolution of a series, especially as the fourth film is what cemented the popularity of the Nemuri Kyoshiro films after a shaky beginning. The first film is the least interesting except that it introduces the character of Kyoshiro and some of the historical elements that inform the series. The story is somewhat like The Maltese Falcon but with a small jade statue that several people are fighting over. Things ramp up with the next three films. Kenji Misumi is probably best known for his work on on the Zatoichi films. Aside from the marked improvement in the visual style from a guy known as "Little Mizoguchi", what I really like about the second film is the use of extended periods of silence to create tension. Kyoshiro becomes the protector of the Shogun's minister of finance, whose job is in part to keep the Shogun's extended family from bankrupting the country. The third film is by another frequent director from the Zatoichi film, Kimiyoshi Yasuda. There is a constant use of shadows which makes the film visually stunning. The story, about a member of the Shogun's extended family groomed to be heir to the throne by his ambitious mother, adds a greater psychological dimension to the series. Director of the fourth film, Kazuo Ikehiro, is said to have made a point of bringing in elements from the original novel by Renzaburo Shibata regarding Kyoshiro's origins. This time it is the Shogun's opium crazed daughter who causes much of the trouble, while Kyoshiro gets involved with persecuted Christians, and a mysterious nun. The violence and nudity are amped up which may explain why this film was more popular than the preceding three. Part Four also brings back the character of Chen Sun, a master of weaponless martial arts who challenges Kyoshiro's sword with his kung-fu.

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Chen Sun is played by Tomisaburo Wakayama, the brother of Zatoichi star Shintaro Katsu. The family resemblance is easy to spot. Wakayama is the only cast member to play the same character twice. When watching the films back-to-back, one will notice a number of cast members from the Daiei Studios stock company playing different parts in different films. Of interest to some in the fourth film is the appearance of Akemi Negishi, Josef Von Sternberg's muse for his last film, Anatahan. As with their other films, AnimEigo has subtitles that explain briefly some of the historical or cultural references spoken of by the characters, with more extensive notes as part of the supplements. When it comes to subtitles on Japanese films, AnimEigo slaps the snot out of Criterion. As for the further adventures of Nemuri Kyoshiro, is suspect that the best is yet to come.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 14, 2009 12:09 AM