The Cold-eyed Killer
Ichikawa Raizo is one of the few Japanese jidai geki actors to star in two successful and long-lasting series. Katsu Shintaro was Zatoichi, and his brother Wakayama Tomisaburo was Lone Wolf and Cub, but only Ichikawa was both the earnest ninja from the Shinobi No Mono series, as well as the stone-faced nihilist known as Nemuri Kyoshiro, known in translation as “The Sleepy Eyes of Death.”
Ichikawa’s film series is actually the second attempt at creating films from Shibata Renzaburo’s 1956 “Nemuri Kyoshio” (“Sleepy Kyoshiro” in English) novels. The Toho-produced series staring Tsuruta Koji lasted only for three films from 1956-58. The novels were later “re-booted” in 1963 with actor Ichikawa Raizo, and those are the sleepy eyes we know and love.
Although the character of the “Super Samurai” appears constantly in Japanese film, Ichikawa’s Nemuri Kyoshio is cut from a distinctly different and darker cloth. Shintaro’s Zatoichi is quick to deal out death to wrong-doers, but his kindly nature and inability to wind up with the girl at the end of the movie puts him more in the league of Tora-San that in Ichikawa’s dark hero. By contrast, in the third film in this boxset, “Full Circle Killing”, Nemuri Kyoshiro cruely rapes a girl, and then spends some part of the film defending himself from her attempts to get revenge. Definitely not one of the good guys.
The series grows with each adventure, with the first few films being enjoyable but not ground-breaking, and then with the fourth film literally all hell breaking loose. Nemuri Kyoshiro’s story is revealed, being born of a Christian priest who fell from grace and raped a Japanese woman during a Black Mass to Satan, he is a man who has been cursed from birth. The effects pump up a notch in number four as well, with his “Full Circle Cut” technique suddenly drawing psychedelic tracers in the air instead of the bland circle from the first three films. Number four in this set will give you a good taste of what is to come.
Ichikawa’s death from cancer at the young age of 37 cut short the “Nemuri Kyoshiro” series, although he still managed to make twelve films, the last of which was finished with the use of a stand in. Daiei films tried to continue the series with a different actor, Matsukata Hiroki, but by then the sleepy-eyed killer had become permanently associated with Ichikawa Raizo, and no substitutes would be accepted.
The four films in this set are:
“The Chinese Jade” (“Nemuri Kyoshiro: Sappocho” or “The Murder Scroll”) – Based on actual history, the smuggler Zeniya Gohei and Lord Maeda both attempt to recruit Nemuri Kyoshiro in a desperate battle to recover a statue of Chinese jade. Inside the statue is a slip of paper showing the relationship between the Lord and the smuggler, which could spell the doom for Lord Maeda and his million-koku estate. The Kyoshiro in this first is much more of an idealist than the cold-hearted killer of the later series, and it is interesting to watch his progression. One a special note Wakayama Tomisaburo pops up here as a Chinese Shaolin monk Chen Sun who wants to pit his hand-to-hand skills against Kyoshiro’s Full Moon Cut.
“Sword of Adventure” (Nemuri Kyoshiro: Shobu” or “Match Game”) – The political theme of the series starts here, as Kyoshiro finds himself entangled with officers of the Shogun, specifically the Minister of Finance’s attempts to reform the currency system, and the Princess Taka who sees those reforms as a threat to her extravagant lifestyle. Kyoshiro befriends the old minister, which makes him a target to the Princesses plots.
“Full Circle Killing” (“Nemuri Kyoshiro: Mangetsu Kiri” or “Full-Moon Cut”) – Kyoshiro is again at odds with the Shogun, specifically his illegitimate son Katagiri Takayuki, whose mother has slowly been killing off all of the Shogun’s sons in order to assure Takayuki’s ascension. Takayuki desires Kyoshiro’s rare Musou Masamune sword, and Kyoshiro desires Takayuki’s pretty fiancé. Both men are more than willing to take what they want by force. Wakayama Tomisaburo reappears here as Chen Sun, although sporting a ridiculous pompadour for some reason.
“Sword of Seduction” (“Nemuri Kyoshiro: Joyoken” or “Seducing Sword”) – This one is the best of the boxset, when Kyoshiro comes into contact with a group of Hidden Christians who have knowledge of his birth. They beg him to protect a woman, known as the “Virgin Shima,” and who the group claims is a blood-relative of Kyoshiro. From here, the idealistic Kyoshiro of the first series is dead, and the sleepy-eyed killer mercilessly beheads Christian priests and cuts down unarmed nuns in cold blood.
Animeigo has shepherded “The Sleepy Eyes of Death” series since the days of VHS and then Laserdisc. The series appearance on DVD has been highly anticipated, and Animeigo has not let us down. All four disks are conveniently packaged in a folding box, and it is hard to believe that this much awesomeness takes up so little room on your shelf. As always, the subtitles are impeccable, with your choice of yellow or white, and a few other options such as “expanded subtitles” which offer cultural notes along with the dialog. There are also an interactive map of Japan, extensive production notes and a booklet with excerpts by Patrick Galloway who wrote Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook.
I can’t wait until the next boxset is released!