In Sword of Satan (SOS), the sixth film about ronin Nemuri Kyoshiro, our anti hero learns that his actions can sometimes have repercussions that he never imagined. SOS is one of the more accessible Sleepy Eyes of Death films, but it could certainly use another title that’s more geared to the film’s content and less geared towards intriguing the exploitation film fanatic of 1965.
We begin with Kyoshiro being propositioned by a desperate prostitute wearing a noh mask. She’s revealed to be of samurai lineage, a fact that offends Kyoshiro and triggers a deluge of extremely harsh words from the ronin. He even tells the woman that sleeping with her would make him pitiful, just like her. The next morning, he learns that the woman killed herself during the night and left instructions that Kyoshiro’s gold piece be returned to him. This news, along with the knowledge that the woman was sheltering Tsurumatsu, a boy who might be the successor to the shogunate, rattles Kyoshiro to the core. He feels that his harsh judgement of the woman led to her death so it’s up to him to protect the boy’s best interests.
Kyoshiro quickly learns that things aren’t as simple as they seem. Several factions are competing for the right to determine the boy’s fate. While Kyoshiro tries to sort it all out, he also has to dodge assassination attempts from an unreasonable, pointy-chinned woman, Orin, who’s seeking revenge for her brother’s death at Kyoshiro’s hands. Her amusing weapon of choice is metal hanafuda cards that she throws like shuriken, but she also enlists others in her quest for revenge.
The most interesting aspect of the story is Kyoshiro’s insistence that the boy have the life he desires. His birthright dictates that he be a figurehead for the clan when a lord dies unexpectedly, but the boy wants nothing to do with the samurai. He wants to be a carpenter, so Kyoshiro becomes hell bent on making sure he isn’t forced into a gilded cage. He takes his life debt to the boy’s “mother” seriously and sees it through to the bitter end.
Veteran director Kimiyoshi Yasuda handles this shifting sea of plot points with a deft touch. I felt like I always knew what was going on and why despite the multitude of characters and complications. It’s always exciting when Kyoshiro’s full-moon cut is used to protect the innocent, but here the stakes are so personal and the defense of the boy is such a clearly good-hearted motivation, it makes Kyoshiro’s sword fights absolutely thrilling.
Raizo Ichikawa is amazing as Nemuri Kyoshiro. Some of the SEOD scripts leave the character so ambiguous that there aren’t many clear intentions to act. Here, the script gives Ichikawa plenty of meat to sink his teeth into. The subtleties of his performance are truly impressive. In one scene, the tiniest hint of a smile crosses his lips as he kills a samurai who was sent to collect the boy. That little moment, and many others like it, tell us more about the character than ten pages of dialog could.
All of the performances are great with the single exception of the boy. His efforts are ham-handed at best. Fortunately, he doesn’t get that many lines and it’s relatively easy to overlook his bad acting because he’s a child. The counterweight to his poor performnace is that of Michigo Saga as the crazy woman who wants to kill Kyoshiro at any cost. The character’s presence is necessary for the plot to work, but it’s Saga’s abilities that turn this two-dimensional sketch into a full-fledged painting.
Like most of the other SEOD pictures, the cinematography and music in this one are ahead of their time. I’m not sure why that was so often the case on this series, as many of the same people worked on Zatoichi and other films, but these really stand head and shoulders above the other movies from the same period. Shot composition is particularly exciting in this installment, eloquently reinforcing the ideas in the script. This movie looks and sounds terrific, and the transfer from AnimEigo is beautiful.
Sword of Satan is a great standalone feature but it has extra resonance for fans of the series. Very highly recommended.