眠狂四郎 勝負 (Nemuri Kyōshirō 2: Shōbu)
Running time: 83 min.
Reviewed by Matthew Hardstaff
"Sleepy Eyes of Death 1: The Chinese Jade" laid the groundwork pretty well for the development of Nemuri Kyoshiro. They don’t spend much time establishing who Kyoshiro is, assuming the audience already knows from the tales on which the series is adapted from, or leaving it as a mystery, basing our entire knowledge of Kyoshiro on his actions. It spent its opening scenes separating itself from the then contemporary film series Shinobi No Mono, which also starred Kyoshiro himself, Raizo Ichikawa, by having him open the film slaughtering a group of ninja. And so what better way to start the sequel by immediately separating it from its predecessor. Part 1 ended with Kyoshiro’s love being killed, and him bitter and mad at the world. And so here, after being introduced to the busy urban scene, meeting the young boy Rentaro and the old financial assistant to the Shogun Akaza Gunbei, we catch a glimpse of a female pickpocket running through the crowd, plying her trade. Unfortunately for her, a crowd of people catches her, and in a second her flayed clothes fly into the air and a naked female thief darts off through the crowd. Nemuri Kyoshiro also leaves the crowd, wallet in hand, having plied his trade. This is not the Kyoshiro from the first film, this is a different man entirely, who will not only catch a female trickster, but also make her the laughing stock of her peers.
From there, we learn more about Rentaro and Akaza Gunbei. Rentaro is now living on the streets, his father dead after a ronin challenged him to a duel, killing him and taking over his dojo. Kyoshiro immediately perks up. Soon he finds himself dueling with the ronin and quickly dispatching him. From there his fate becomes intertwined with Akaza Gunbei. Gunbei has been put in charge of finding ways to cut costs for the Shogun, a task that doesn’t always bode well with people who in the end may loose out financially. One of these people is the Shoguns own daughter Takahime, the most beautiful of all his daughters. She lives off a stipend given to her by her father, a stipend Gunbei believes is wasteful. She obviously sees only one way to save herself from financial ruin, as she lounges in lavish luxury: kill Gunbei. Of course Kyoshiro finds himself not only standing between the two, but also a vessel of lust the hedonistic princess. But of course, this new Kyoshiro disdains the romantic notion of love, and will do everything in his pour to reject her and any other woman he meets.
This film is notably different as I already pointed out, but also in the same mold. The writer, Seiji Hoshikawa, wrote many films in this series, as well as Zatoichi, so he’s not only a seasoned pro at writing for a film series, but he also brings a subtle sense of continuity between films. On the surface it may appear that Kyoshiro is helping the boy Rentaro and the old man Akaza Gunbei because he wants to help fight injustice. However his actions speak differently. Take the duel with the ronin who killed Rentaro’s father. His interest is peaked after Gunbei tells him his father ran a dojo and speaks of the feats of martial prowess he achieved. Kyoshiro smells a fight. He also fights the ronin in the style of the deceased master, which is only possible if he studied the style, giving him another reason to defeat the ronin in a duel. And this is how much of the film plays out. Kyoshiro starts following the old man Gunbei around, always remaining in his vicinity, after he discovers people are out to get him, people with swords that like to duel. He could have easily acted as Gunbei's bodyguard, and helped evade the man from danger, but he prefers to hover around Gunbei until danger strikes, using him as bait. Where as the first film seems to intertwine Kyoshiro’s fate with that of dispatching death, here Kyoshiro tempts fate but putting himself directly in the path of violence and destruction, through the guise of good nature and the battle of injustice. His nihilistic nature is subtle, but it is brewing within him.
Director Kenji Misumi also sets the film apart visually though his usually stunning imagery and vicious yet stylistic staging of swordplay. In the first film the duels were more like a dance, there was more beauty not just in Raizo Mishawaka’s movements, but also in the visual composition and montage. Here Misumi has a slightly more aggressively visual style, which forms a wonderful symbiosis with Kyoshiro’s chosen path.
Kyoshiro the nihilist here we come!!
Read more by Matthew Hardstaff at his blog.