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January 29, 2013

Sleepy Eyes of Death - Collector's Set Volume 3

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Sleepy Eyes of Death 9: A Trail of Traps/Nemuri Kyoshiro Burai-Hikae masho no hada
Kazuo Ikehiro - 1967

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Sleepy Eyes of Death 10: Hell is a Woman/Nemuri Kyoshiro Onna jigoku
Tokuzo Tanaka - 1968

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Sleepy Eyes of Death 11: In the Spider's Lair/Nemuri Kyoshiro Hito hada kumo
Kimiyoshi Yasuda - 1968

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Sleepy Eyes of Death 12: Castle Menagerie/Nemuri Kyoshiro Akujo-gari
Kazuo Ikehiro - 1969
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

The ninth episode in this series begins with a short review of the origins of Kyoshiro Nemuri. The son of a renegade Catholic priest and a Japanese woman, the result of a sexual devil worshipping rite, Kyoshiro is an outcast at birth. The sound of a crying baby awakens memories best forgotten. A Trail of Traps begins and continues as a Freudian nightmare.

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Kyoshiro is hired to protect a small golden statue of the Virgin Mary. A seemingly simple setup is loaded, sexually and philosophically. While the character of Kyoshiro is in keeping with the general embrace of the anti-hero in movies in the Sixties, his nihilism may give some viewers pause. Trying to grab the statue for their own purposes is a devil worshipping gang, the Black Finger Group, led by a heretical Catholic priest. To put this film in some historical context, it takes place when there was active suppression of Christianity in Japan. As for Kyoshiro, there is disdain for all religion.

The depiction of Kyoshiro's birth serves as a kind of parody in a story where Catholic belief is twisted around. Certainly, the women who throw themselves at Kyoshiro are not saintly. Kyoshiro's price for acting as escort for the statue is to claim the virginity of a nobleman's daughter. What makes the Kyoshiro Nemuri interesting is that his stated nihilism and apparent sexual chauvinism mask his own idealism. This is also one of the sexier entries to the series, with generous glimpses of breasts and thighs of the several temptresses who get encounter Kyoshiro. But as the opening scene indicates, Kyoshiro has, as some might say, issues regarding women, beginning with his mother.

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It should be mentioned that the director of Hell is a Woman, Tokuzo Tanaka, has a truly impressive resume from his time as an Assistant Director. Roshomon, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, The Crucified Lovers, and Conflagration. I assume there are more films, but this is what IMDb has listed. The last film is significant for elevating Raizo Ichikawa to award winning actor, prior to his starring as a samurai era action hero. But Tanaka seems to have incorporated some of the visual style of both Akira Kurosawa and Kenjii Mizoguchi in the big action scenes.

Reminiscent of the tracking shots in the woods in Throne of Blood, Hell is a Woman begins with a lone horseman attacking several men, with the action partially obscured by bare branches. More akin to Mizoguchi is the use of fog, in this case created by a bomb that destroys a small house in the woods, making it a challenge for the temporarily vision impaired Kyoshiro and his attackers. The final sword fight takes place during a progressively heavy snow storm.

The story might be considered as a variation of Yojimbo. Unlike the Kurosawa film where Toshiro Mifune switches sides, in Hell is a Woman, Kyoshiro does his best not to take anyone's side in a dispute between two rival retainers laying claim on a dying lord's fief. The recurring motif of partially seen action serves as a visual correlative to the characters with hidden motives, never who they first appear to be.

And just when you think things can't get any more perverse, there's In the Spider's Lair. Kyoshiro returns to the small village where he grew up. The remote area is now ruled by a brother and sister, a prince and princess, who love murder, torture and each other. The shogun was hoping exile might make this pair see the error of their ways, but the Shogun's Inspector decides the two are such an embarrassment that death is the order of the day, and Kyoshiro is the perfect guy for the deed. Kyoshiro wants nothing to do with this, but is dragged in when the young ward of a family friend is abducted to be a sex slave to the princess.

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The princess also finds herself lusting for Kyoshiro's stud services almost as much as she lusts to kill him. Killing Kyoshiro becomes a point of sibling rivalry between the prince and princess. What gives the eleventh episode a bit of unintended gravity is the frequent talk of the imminence of death. At what point was Raizo Ichikawa aware that he would soon die of cancer? While Kyoshiro speaks of death in a matter of fact manner, I had to wonder what was going on in the mind of the actor who displayed a sense of detachment to thoughts of mortality.

I also had to wonder what would have happened if Raizo Ichikawa had lived, how many more movies there would have been about Kyoshiro Nemuri. In some respects the series was to often repeating story lines about hidden Christians, and sons of renegade European priests who seduced Japanese maidens. Castle Menagerie revolves around the mistress who controls the Shogun's harem, and the attempt to determine which woman will give birth a boy, the Shogun's heir. There is also someone impersonating Kyoshiro, killing men, raping women, and even worse, using Kyoshiro's patented Full Moon sword fighting technique.

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The palace intrigue is goosed up a bit with a scene of lesbianism between two of the concubines. What really makes this episode stand out is a scene of ninja dressed in bird costumes and Noh masks. The bird ninjas first are seen leaping down from a wall in slow motion, and with a shot of them superimposed over a sleeping Kyoshiro, creates a dream like quality to the scene. The theatricality is heightened with the scene continuing in a virtually bare, black room, where the masks seem to be floating on their own. While Castle Menagerie was probably not intended to be the last film in the Kyoshiro Nemuri series, there is still a satisfying sense of closure with the final shot of Raizo Ichikawa, back turned to the camera, walking into the distance.

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