The fifth film in the Sleepy Eyes of Death series, Sword of Fire, presents a real mixed bag of elements. While the cinematography, fight choreography, and performances are all top-notch, the overly plotted story left me wanting. Master director Kenji Misumi does all he can to make this installment palatable, but in the end the plot overwhelms the characters this time around.
The film begins with Nemuri Kyoshiro, played once again by Raizo Ichikawa, wandering from town to town. He stumbles onto a fight between a samurai and a woman who claims to be seeking revenge against him. Kyoshiro reluctantly helps the woman, setting off a series of events involving conspiracies, pirates, embezzlement, and subterfuge. The situation and its players mean nothing to Kyoshiro, but he ends up on the defensive as he tries to figure out who these people are, what they really want, and how he can extract himself from their feud without getting killed himself.
I felt a little like Kyoshiro while watching this one. I, too, wanted to figure out who the players were and what the game was, but after more and more double-crosses were revealed, I gave up. I generally dislike when a filmmaker misleads the audience, but I can put up with it when it’s necessary to create tension. This story doesn’t work that way. It makes Kyoshiro chase his own tail and there’s never a payoff for him.
I like the ambivalence of the Kyoshiro character. I always find myself wondering what he’ll do next because his moral compass is hard to define. When he does choose the path of righteousness, it’s always a victory of sorts for the character. It’s sometimes fun to see his dark side emerge in a conflict, but he’s not so dark as to become an anti-hero. I imagine this is the way the character was written in the novels and short stories. It works most of the time, but I believe it works best when Kyoshiro is given choices as he faces an uncertain destiny. In this film, he’s tricked into action and virtually no one is worthy of his confidence because they’re all liars and cheats, with a few minor exceptions, like the housegirl, Kayo.
That said, this is a beautifully shot film that utilizes a large number of different looks and locations, all masterfully composed to communicate what the script does not. It’s almost worth watching it for the visuals alone. The fight that takes place at a Buddhist temple is especially effective, juxtaposing the brutality of the fight against the beauty of the location.
Speaking of fights, these are some of the best in the series. We get plenty of idiots who insist on seeing Kyoshiro’s full moon cut, but we also get several extended sequences that really made me worry for the safety of the star. There’s some really great stunt work on display here.
While all the actors here are very good, Tamao Nakamura stands out as the viscious, back-stabber who sets the whole plot into motion. I feel it’s necessary to mention that she is still alive and working (she’s been in 84 films to date) despite the fact that several internet resources state she died in 1997. I expect those errors stem from the fact that her famous husband, Shintaro Katsu, died that year.
Now that I’ve had a little time to think about the movie, I wonder if I wouldn’t like it more after a second viewing. Perhaps I would, but after the first viewing I’d only recommend it for those who’ve enjoyed the other SEOD films.