Review: Sleepy Eyes of Death 9 – A Trail of Traps (1967)

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Put simply, Sleepy Eyes of Death 9 – A Trail of Traps is one of the best chanbara films of the 1960s.  The script is an intricate puzzle box that keeps us guessing while it informs the character of our anti-hero, Nemuri Kyoshiro.  Unlike so many of the samurai films of this era, it accomplishes the feat of balancing story complications with momentum, all while remaining true to the idea of what a Nemuri Kyoshiro story should be.

The core story involves the transport of a Christian artifact, in this case a gold statue of Mary, to a place of safe keeping.  As Kyoshiro is quick to divulge, he has no love for any religion, especially not Christianity, so he refuses to help, but when he’s slowly drawn into the intrigue by the actions of a renegade cult, he finds he can no longer stand on the sidelines.  The actions of the Black Finger cult, a group who worship the Christian devil, are the motor that propel this plot forward.  They propose that Kyoshiro join them, but when he refuses, they set out to kill him, hence the titular trail of traps.  Some of their methods would even challenge Indiana Jones!

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This is one of the most satisfying films of the series, mainly because it allows Kyoshiro to change.  He unexpectedly allows someone into his heart, and by doing so, he opens himself to emotions that he’s kept locked away.  Toward the end of the film, he’s so angered by the injustices perpetrated by the Black Finger cult that, for the first time in his life, he issues a challenge and chooses a side.

Raizo Ichikawa is at an all-time high in his performance as Kyoshiro in this installment.  His performance is nuanced and varied in a way that was seldom seen during this era of hack and slash cinema.  Likewise, his co-stars all offer lucid performances that never stray from the cores of their characters.  In some of the SEOD films, it’s easy to get confused by how similar some of the characters are.  Not this time around.  This time, they’re all quite clearly drawn and they’re all vital to the story.

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Director Kazuo Ikehiro shows why he was a Daiei Film Company favorite.  He exhibits a deft touch, allowing each scene the time it needs to unfold.  Along with cinematographer Yasukazu Takemura, he crafts enduring images that reinforce the ideas on the page.  Just like the other SEOD movies, this film is gorgeous.  I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I don’t understand why this series has such excellent shot composition when the same directors and cinematographers worked on other films that do not.  Perhaps it was simply a matter of copying the style of the first film and the challenge of making the sequels even better.

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The sole misstep here is the music.  It was trendy at the time but it hasn’t aged well.  Takeo Watanabe’s intrusive and hipsterish use of brassy hits and jabs is annoying at best.  It serves as a testament to classic choices over trendy ones, but hindsight is always 20/20.

As I near the end of the SEOD series, it’s becoming one of my favorites, and Trail of Traps is perhaps the best of the series.  Very highly recommended.

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