Sunday, May 8, 2011

REVIEW: Sleepy Eyes of Death 4: Sword of Seduction

眠狂四郎女妖剣 (Nemuri Kyōshirō 4: Joyoken)

Released: 1964

Kazuo Ikehiro

Raizo Ichikawa
Michiko Ai
Akira Amemiya
Shinjiro Asano
Saburo Date

Running time: 87 mins.

Reviewed by Matthew Hardstaff

1964 was a good year for Kazuo Ikehiro. He was given directing duties on not one but 3 different epic film series, and the only year he was to do so. He worked on "Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold", "Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword", "Shinobi No Mono 5" and "Sleepy Eyes of Death 4: Sword of Seduction". Whilst the "Sleepy Eyes of Death" films had always changed directors, this was the first time that writer Seiji Hoshikawa did not scribe the film (he would return for parts 5, 6, 7 and 11) and was replaced by Kimiyoshi Hoshikawa. And so the full fury of Nemuri Kyoshiro is unleashed on screen, as we finally delve into his sordid past. But of course, that would be far too easy. Rather than have Kyoshiro unravel and finally destroy the lives of one group of evil folk, helping some good-natured citizens as an afterthought, here we’re presented with not one but three narratives that become violently interwoven.

The driving force of this film is addiction. A group of vile and cunning merchants, led by Bizenya (Yoshio Inaba who played Gorobei in Seven Samurai) are smuggling opium into Japan and selling it to the highest bidder. Of course, you need to get the opium from China, so working for Bizenya is Chen Sun (Tomisaburo Wakayama), the thirteenth descendant of Gen Ping (who introduced Shorinji Kempo to the Japanese), returning from the stalemate with Kyoshiro that occurred in the first film. Bizenya gains pleasure in getting people addicted to opium and uses Dr. Jundo, an official physician of the Inner Court, to get only the wealthiest and politically connected addicted. One of the people who happens to be addicted is princess Kiku, a sadistic daughter of the Shogun (another offspring of the Shogun, now a common thread throughout all the films) who is an expert at Noh and who always hides her face from the public. She gets joy from watching her drug starved opium addict courtesans writhe in pain. She also has a thing for Nemuri Kyoshiro. And then of course there are the Christians. Early on Kyoshiro runs into Torizo, a Christian on the run. He begs Kyoshiro to help him protect the Virgin Shima (Naoko Kubo), a saint to the Japanese converts. Kyoshiro flatly refuses, as he has a disdain for religion, Christians especially. However, when Torizo tells him that the Virgin Shima knows the circumstances surrounding Kyoshiro’s birth, he quickly becomes interested, and charges forward in search of the Virgin Shima, and along the way becoming embroiled with both the Princess and the merchants. And of course Chen Sun wants a rematch.

This is without a doubt the densest "Sleepy Eyes of Death" film so far. Because cinematographer Chishi Makiura keeps the visual style somewhat consistent and Ichiro Saito does the same with the score, the film doesn’t seem that much of a stretch when compared to the others. However that’s not to say that they didn’t push the visual boundaries as well as the constraints of the narrative. Oh no, here we’re treated to some theatrical uses of splits screen, as well as numerous other psychedelic effects the mirror the religious, narcotic and poisonous undertones that spread through the film. The compositions at times are quite bold and striking, forcing your eyes to remain active through each shot. Between the breakneck speed the interweaving film unravels at and the bombastic visual style that fills each frame, "Sword of Seduction" ensures there’s no time for a break. It also features a tremendous amount of sword fights in comparison to the early films, and the choreography for them is quite stunning. The dual between Chen Sun and Kyoshiro doesn’t end nearly as satisfying as it should, but still, pretty awesome (although why does Chen Sun, once bald, now feel the need to sport a full head of very styled hair).

By now it becomes very apparent why Daiei spent time making 3 films prior to this before they fully unleashed Nemuri Kyoshiro. He’s a bastard. Not only does he shame another treacherous woman by having his way with her, but he also kills an unarmed witch in cold blood (apparently one of the first films in Japanese history that has its protagonist cut down an unarmed female). He’s as nihilistic, conceited and egotistical as ever, and yet, he’s the protagonist. It’s really quite a feat that they can created such a character and have people drawn to him. Part of it is the charisma of Raizo Ichikawa and they way he treats the wicked so callously. The other part is pure movie magic, as they devise creative ways to depict Kyoshiro’s dark nature without making him appear as vile as those he kills.

I’m most definitely not the first to say this, but this film was way ahead of its time. A precursor to many films to come later in the decade, mixing borderline Rampo-esque sensibilities with psychedelic visual sequences. It also happens to bring in a new effect when Kyoshiro performs the full moon cut, as superimposed trails follow the sword along its trajectory, an effect that was popularized by Bruce Lee almost a decade later in "Enter the Dragon". By far the best film in the series so far, if not for anything that its sheer narrative and cinematic originality.

Read more by Matthew Hardstaff at his blog.

1 comment:

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