The second in the series of films about Nemuri Kyoshiro, retitled in the US as Sleepy Eyes of Death 2 (SEOD2), is truly one of the best written, acted, and shot samurai features I’ve ever seen. Director Kenji Misume and cinematographer Chishi Makiura, both pros who would go on to work on over 40 titles each, are at the top of their respective games here. This film is so good that I’m shocked that this series isn’t more well-known in the west.
In this entry, Kyoshiro meets an old man named Asahina (a dead ringer for Noh Okina masks!) during the new year’s celebrations at a local shrine. At first the old man is more intrigued by Kyoshiro than Kyoshiro is by him, but those tables soon turn when Kyoshiro learns that Asahina is the finance minister to the shogun. Unlike most officials in this type of film, Asahina is a good man who is fighting for change. Kyoshiro becomes determined to protect him when there’s an attempt on the old man’s life and he learns that the minister has made an enemy of the shogun’s daughter through his attempts at reform.
The plot gets more complex as it goes along, and includes a wandering fortune telling spy and a rigged duel. Deceit and intrigue are definitely centerpieces here, but the real revelation is the slow and deliberate unveiling of our hero’s sordid past. Unlike many samurai movies of this era, this one keeps character development front and center and thereby provides a more satisfying experience. We get just a bit more information about Kyoshiro’s origins but not so much that I felt that I knew his full story. Sadly, there are any number of spoilers on the net so I probably know more than I should, but that’s certainly not the fault of the filmmakers.
Swordplay here is impressive, to say the least, but it isn’t the core of the feature. Instead, fights are used judiciously throughout the film to further the plot and help us learn more about Kyoshiro’s place in the world. Combat choreography is interesting and varied, but remains true to life in most respects. The final battle in particular is a wonderful, Zatoichi-style melee that takes place in a forest and it’s not to be missed.
Raizo Ichikawa has never been more photogenic or charming, but somehow he keeps his celebrity from overwhelming the character he’s playing. Kyoshiro is a man you just have to root for. Much like Zatoichi, he’s an outcast with a skill set that gives him the confidence to do whatever he chooses. He exists outside of the normal hierarchy of feudal Japan but he wedges himself in wherever he wants because most everyone else is intimidated by his formidable sword technique.
Speaking of which, just about all the actors are familiar faces if you’ve seen many samurai films from the 60’s, and they all deliver the top-notch performances I expect. The only below-par performance is that of the unfortunate western actor who plays the fortune-teller’s husband. I’d bet he was speaking Japanese phonetically but that combined with his cheesy fake hair make him a bit of a laughing stock when he should be inspiring our sympathy.
What really sets this film apart, though, are the sensational visuals. Even on DVD (an excellent transfer from AnimEigo) the look of the film is really fine. Shot composition is especially wonderful, with many shots framed in such a way as to emphasize the claustrophobic confines of society and illustrate its effect on the characters. This is filmmaking at its best and I only hope that other entries in the series are as sharply defined.
This is one golden era jidaigeki film that’s not to be missed. Very highly recommended.