眠狂四郎殺法帖 (Nemuri Kyoshiro: Sappocho)
Running time: 82 mins.
Reviewed by Matthew Hardstaff
A flurry of fire tipped shuriken fly through the air, and within moments, Nemuri Kyoshiro, played by the great Raizo Ichikawa, dispatches a handful of ninja. Its 1963, and Ichikawa has already made three of the popular ninja films "Shinobi No Mono", and so what better what to start his new samurai anti-hero series than have him treat ninja like they were little more than cannon fodder!
"Nemuri Kyoshiro: Sappocho", a.k.a. "Sleepy Eyes of Death 1: the Chinese Jade" is the first in Ichikawa’s 12 film series. Based on the very popular character created by Renzahuro Shibata in the early 1950’s, Nemuri Kyoshiro is a nihilistic outlaw samurai who is hell bent on traveling the country, battling other twisted samurai until he dies in a bloody duel. Of course, his full moon cut technique proves too powerful for all he faces, and those duels usually end with the opposing samurai lying dead with his head several feet from his torso.
Rather than jumping straight into the Nemuri Kyoshiro mythology, immediately depicting Kyoshiro as the bastard samurai he is, writer Seiji Hoshikawa and Daiei studios decided to take a less evasive approach. Here, Nemuri is not quite the jaded nihilist he becomes. In fact, there is very little back story at all for him, save a brief flashback. The Japanese title itself, roughly translated to Enter Kyoshiro Nemuri the Swordsman is probably a far better title than "Sleepy Eyes of Death 1: the Chinese Jade", because this is a very basic, entry level introduction to the character. He’s not nearly as rough around the edges as he later becomes, nor as he ought to be depicted, but we’re presented with an evolution of his character, for as the film ends in its depressing glory, it’s quickly apparent that the Kyoshiro in the following films won’t the same one depicted here. If anything, the "Sleepy Eyes of Death" title eludes only to the often emotionless look in his eye as he trudges through his opponents, dispatching them with little more than an after thought.
After the introductory ninja are slaughtered, we’re quickly thrown into a political scheme that involves the hunt for a jade statue that holds the key to bringing about the end of the Kaga fief and its ruler Lord Maeda. Kyoshiro forms an uneasy truce with Chen Sun, played by Tomisaburo Wakayama (then credited as Jyo Kenzaburo), a 13th descendent of Chen Gen-Ping, a Chinese practitioner of kung fu who traveled to Japan during the Tensho Era and helped to establish Shorinji Kempo, which Chen Sun himself is a practitioner of. And so we are treated to a series of battles that involve Kyoshiro dispatching people with his Musou Masamune blade (Masamune being a 14th century sword smith famous for his artistry) and Chen Sun laying some beat downs with his fists and feet.
Whilst this film exists only to lay the groundwork for the Kyoshiro character and the rest of the series, director Tokuzo Tanaka, who directed films in the "Zatoichi" and "Shinobi No Mono" series, creates a visually simplistic yet efficient film, filled with bold, deep focus compositions. His use of camera movement is precise and disciplined, and his staging equally so. There is nothing about this film that’s overwrought or flamboyant, everything exists with an exacting purpose, from the subtle use of colour to which highlights the imagery of the jade statue and the restrained use of blood, to the use of horizontal and vertical lines that break up the frame. Tanaka and cinematographer Chishi Makiura (who would continue to work in this series, as well as "Zatoichi" and "Lone Wolf and Cub") are craftsman and artists. It’s important to note that unlike the "Shinobi No Mono" series which was shot during the same time period, the Nemuri Kyoshiro series is shot in colour, not black and white, and yet this fact never calls attention to itself.
This film is simple and effective. It presents you with a character you know very little about, and the only clues to whom he is are shown through his actions, creating a burning desire within you to continue with the series.
Read more by Matthew Hardstaff at his blog.