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February 21, 2011

Sleepy Eyes of Death - Collector's Set Volume 2

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Sleepy Eyes of Death 5: Sword of Fire/Nemuri Kyoshiro Enjyoken
Kenji Misumi - 1965

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Sleepy Eyes of Death 6: Sword of Satan/Nemuri Kyoshiro Mashoken
Kimiyoshi Masuda - 1965

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Sleepy Eyes of Death 7: The Mask of the Princess/Nemuri Kyoshiro Tajyoken
Akira Inoue - 1966

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Sleepy Eyes of Death 8: Sword of Villainy/Nemuri Kyoshiro Buraiken
Kenji Misumi - 1966
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

It's been about a year and a half since the first set of four films came out on DVD. Hopefully, fans of this series won't have to wait quite so long for the final four films. Even though one of the films contains a character from one of the earlier films, all can be enjoyed as stand alone entertainment. The basic template is that Kyoshiro Nemuri is a ronin, a masterless samurai, who wanders from place to place, only to find himself caught up in some kind of intrigue revolving around the ruling families. Young and handsome, woman fling themselves at him, whether they be courtesans, princesses or even nuns. The men know of Nemuri by his reputation, his sword technique called the Full Moon Cut.

Two of the films in this set were directed by Kenji Misumi, whom I've discussed in other postings. Misumi is best known for directing many of the best films in the original Zatoichi series, Of the two films here, the fifth entry in this series is the best. Even more amazing when one considers that Misumi was cranking out three or four movies per year, Sword of Fire is worth watching simply for its formal beauty. Lots of framing devices are employed here, be they shoji screens, windows, or branches.

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Nemuri gets caught up by protecting a woman, Nui, from being attacked by another swordsman. The story involves a conspiracy to murder a band of pirates, stolen treasure, a woman with a unique tattoo, and some illegal schemes to make a lot of money. What makes watching the relationship between Nemuri and the villainous Nui even more interesting is knowing that Nui is played by the star of the Zatoichi films, Shintaro Katsu's wife, Tamao Nakamura.

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A female nemesis, played by Michiko Saga, is the best part of watching Sword of Satan. Saga plays the part of Orin, a woman determined to avenge the death of her brother, flinging sharp metal squares at Nemuri. The story involves the kidnapping of a young boy, who was to be killed as an infant because of his birth meant being the heir to a clan family, only to be held hostage because his existence allows the clan to continue to receive patronage from the shogun. The film is about 75 minutes long, and while it doesn't have the artistic aspirations of Misumi's work, director Kimiyoshi Yasuda lets the action zip along, with just enough time for shots of geysers of blood and a large body count in the sword fighting scenes. One of the first characters in this film is a woman, a would be prostitute, who wears a Noh mask when first scene. Various shots of the mask provide a form of visual refrain.

A Noh mask also figures in the appropriately titled Mask of a Princess. Akira Inoue's film brings back the character of Princess Kiku from the fourth film. Kiku wears the mask to hide the half of her face burned and badly scarred. Kiku seeks to kill Nemuri because he is the only man to have seen her unmasked, although like every other woman in the series, she has feelings of unrequited love. There is also a stranger that Nemuri meets by chance who shows intense interest in Nemuri's sword technique. As if dealing with the stranger and Kiku's band of ninjas wasn't enough, Nemuri also decides to pay off the debt of a samurai hating maid, Haru, who disguises any appreciation with a perpetual pout. One of the highlights involves Nemuri going to bed with a nun who decides that bearing an heir is more important than keeping vows of chastity, with our hero waking up to a couple of deadly snakes.

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Misumi returns to direct Sword of Villainy. This time there is a conspiracy involving the distillation of some flammable water, to be used for lighting lamps, stolen plans, and a broken promise to use profits to feed the poor citizens of Edo, present day Tokyo. The story is a fictionalized version of one of the several massive fires that virtually destroyed the entire city. Among the characters are some gymnastic performers, including a young woman who is out to seek revenge for being used by one of the conspirators. Shiho Fujimura may not have been the prettiest actress at the Daiei Studios lot, but she was game enough for a scene where she needs to flee two dueling swordsmen, taking a flying and nude jump into a nearby river.

As indicated by these films, the Sleepy Eyes of Death series has established certain patterns. The main character of Kiyoshiro Nemuri is unusual as a ronin, with his outsider status double confirmed by being biracial, the son of a European, a missionary turned apostate. Even though Nemuri does not identify himself as Christian, and keep in mind that the films take place when being Christian in Japan was illegal, the films occasionally have references or scenes revolving around Christianity or more luridly, Black Masses. On a lighter note, the series also includes a scene or two of eye candy of the type that would have been quite racy for American audiences back in the mid Sixties. As is the case for AnimEigo's DVDs, there are extremely readable, colored subtitles, and additional notes that provide more historical context for each film. Knowing that Shiho Fujimura returns in the twelfth, and final, Kiyoshiro Nemuri film is enough incentive for me to see this series through the end.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 21, 2011 08:25 AM