Review: Sleepy Eyes of Death: The Chinese Jade (1963)

The Chinese Jade is the first of twelve films in the Nemuri Kyoshiro series, known in the states as Sleepy Eyes of Death (SEOD).  Since Nemuri Kyoshiro is the main character, it makes sense that the series would be titled after him, much like the Zatoichi series, but American distributors must have thought the character’s name to be too foreign to attract English-speaking audiences so we end up with the more enigmatic title.  But whatever you call it, the SEOD series is one of the finest from the golden age of samurai cinema.

Director Tokuzo Tanaka directed six films in 1963, including this one and two installments of Zatoichi!  I don’t know what they were putting in the rice back then, but I frequently marvel at the output of the big names on both sides of the camera during that era.  The studio system was in full swing in Japan at that time and it made for an incredibly efficient process.  Even with so much competition, SEOD rose to the top, partially due to the popularity of series star Raizo Ichikawa.

Ichikawa made quite a mark on Japanese pop culture before he tragically died of cancer at the age of 38.  Often cited as the Japanese James Dean, his popularity soared with his starring roles in the Shinobi No Mono (AKA Ninja) series and climbed even higher with SEOD.  It’s easy to see why.  He had the acting chops to play very different characters, the good looks to carry the marketing of the films, and the kind of onscreen charisma that simply can’t be taught.

The character of Nemuri Kyoshiro in SEOD1 is a perfect fit for Ichikawa.  He’s a half-breed Japanese ronin with auburn hair and a penchant for making up his own moral code as he goes along.  He’s a samurai with martial arts chops of the highest caliber and a secret move that’s referred to as the full moon sword technique.  He dispatches the bad guys with the same swiftness as Zatoichi, but his devil may care attitude while he’s doing so is what sets him apart.

Co star Tomisaburu Wakayama, of the Lone Wolf and Cub and Wicked Priest films, holds his own here too as rival martial artist and Chinese (!!!) ne’er do well, Chen Sun.  As in so many features of this period, the entire cast really shines.

The story begins with both sides in a war of ambition seeking to hire Kyoshiro to help them beat their rivals.  If he won’t join up voluntarily, they’ll trick him into doing their dirty work for them.  Double-crosses ensue and the eventual McGuffin is revealed to be a jade Buddha statue with evidence of the crimes of the local clan leader tucked inside.  At its heart, SEOD1 is a mystery story, but it ends up being much more than the sum of its plot points.

SEOD1 is assembled with great care from a buffet of beautiful shots.  Cinematographer Chishi Makiura, who also shot many Lone Wolf & Cub and Zatoichi films, makes the most of every image.  I should also mention that the transfer I saw on the AnimEigo DVD release was absolutely gorgeous, even when upscaled on a big screen TV.

But even though the film shines technically, it’s Ichikawa’s charm that knocks this one out of the park.  I absolutely loved the character of Kyoshiro and found him to be a far more suitable character for Ichikawa than that of Goemon and the other ninjas he played in the Shinobi No Mono films.  Kyoshiro has a sense of humor and an awareness of the absurdity of life.  I’m looking forward to seeing the other 11 films in this series.  Highly recommended.

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