Review: Sleepy Eyes of Death 4: Sword of Seduction (1964)

Nemuri Kyoshiro, the protagonist in the Sleepy Eyes of Death films, was the creation of author Renzaburo Shibata.  My understanding is that the character in the novels is somewhat different than the Kyoshiro we see in the first three films.  I may never know for sure because I’ve yet to see an English translation of Shibata’s work, but what is clear is the fact that the character evolves in this, the fourth film of the series, and becomes more closely aligned with the original.

Sword of Seduction’s plot revolves around the wrongdoings perpetrated by one of the daughters of the shogun.  Her sadism has been allowed to run rampant and her actions have had a negative impact on the people in her little corner of Japan.  Kyoshiro is drawn into this situation when he learns more about what’s going on than the local leaders (and opium smugglers) are comfortable with.  The plot is a little convoluted but most of the disparate threads are eventually woven into a complete story tapestry.  The story material that centers around the persecution of Christians is especially interesting from a western point of view.  While not as jaw droppingly good as SEOD2, this installment is a big step up from the sloppy SEOD3.

One of the biggest reasons for the film’s success is the slow revelation of the history of the Kyoshiro character.  I’ll not reveal much here, but suffice it to say that it’s suggested that there could be a supernatural/spiritual side to the character that’s only been hinted at before.  It’s a shame that the biggest revelations come at the climax of the film as I’d have enjoyed seeing more of Kyoshiro’s reactions to this new information, but maybe that’s yet to come.

Kyoshiro’s development is clearly reinforced by some of the imagery used in the film, not the least of which is the unique effect used to emphasize his full moon cut sword technique.  As is usual for this series, every shot is masterfully composed.  In many cases, characters are relegated to the edges of the frame, leaving the impression that they’re being dwarfed by their world.  Framing, line quality, color and composition help communicate the story every single step of the way and it’s refreshing to see.  Cinematographer Chish Makiura had shot every SEOD film up to this point but would not return again until SEOD8.  His work is so great, I’m almost afraid to see the installments he didn’t shoot.

SEOD4 director, Kazuo Ikehiro, does a marvelous job drawing us in and focusing our attention on Kyoshiro’s internal battles.  He was a veteran director at the time, but this was his first SEOD film.  He handles the reigns masterfully and would go on to direct some of my favorite Japanese films, including Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage.

Series star, Raizo Ichikawa, embraces his character’s darkness more vividly than before, but is otherwise as charismatic in the role as he was in the previous installments.  He’s surrounded by the usual gallery of 60s character actors, not the least of which is Tomisaburo Wakayama appearing for the second time as the Chinese ne’er do well, Chen Sun.  This time, however, he’s sporting an odd pompadour that upstages him from time to time.  Chinese Elvis, anyone?

This is a very good installment in the 12-film series and one that holds up to repeated viewings.  It’s a darker installment, for sure, but that’s a welcome addition that bodes well for the remaining eight films.  Highly recommended.

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