The main theme of the tenth installment of the Sleepy Eyes of Death series is a simple one – every woman who comes into contact with our anti-hero, Nemuri Kyoshiro, pays for it in the end. Kyoshiro even flat out says this to one of the women in this feature, but it doesn’t dissuade her in her pursuit of the badass ronin, nor does it keep her from meeting an untimely end.
The story revolves around a princess who’s trying to get back to her sick father, the clan leader, so she can be with him when he dies. Two rival lords see the clan leader’s death as an opportunity to expand their territories so they scheme against one another to use the princess against her father. And wouldn’t you know it–right into the middle of this big mess steps ronin Nemuri Kyoshiro.
This installment is interesting because almost all of the characters are trying to deceive Kyoshiro in one way or another. Very few of them are who they appear to be. While this is interesting in some ways, like the fact that it basically reinforces Kyoshiro’s world view, it got a little old for me. The problem lies in the fact that the characters do a better job of deceiving the audience than they do of deceiving our anti-hero.
In keeping with his character, Kyoshiro doesn’t choose sides. Instead, he pokes at the wounds of those who would like to see him removed from the game altogether. This is what clearly differentiates the character of Kyoshiro from someone like Zatoichi. Ichi often tries to help people in need. Kyoshiro has no such desire, but he does enjoy seeing people punished for their actions.
Director Tokuzo Tanaka works wonders here with a somewhat convoluted script. There’s a lot going on, and the various lines do get murky from time to time, but in the end it’s clear where the true conflict lies. Each woman in the film is like a spoke in a wheel that has Kyoshiro as its hub. This conceit is what makes the material a little difficult to follow, but Tanaka keeps the wheel turning and never forgets to pay off each storyline as best he can.
Cinematographer Fujiro Morita works wonders within the previously established visual aesthetic of the SEOD films. I don’t think any of the features could top this one. It has such a variety of looks, from quiet tableaus to sword fights in fog-enshrouded forests to processions down snowy city streets. Morita is by far my favorite cinematographer from this era and this film gives even more credence to that status. This film is a wonderful visual treat.
With so many beautiful women in the cast, you might think Raizo Ichikawa as Kyoshiro would get a run for his money, but that’s not the case here. He rises above everyone else onscreen and commands every scene that he’s in, even if he’s just sitting and watching the goings-on. Everyone else is very good, mind you, but Ichikawa is such a force of nature here that it’s hard to tear your eyes away from him.
The only misstep in SEOD 10 is the music. I’m sure it wasn’t seen as a bad choice in 1967 when the movie was being made, but from the point of view of the 21st century, it’s clear that Takeo Watanabe was following trends instead of setting them. The score plays like a bad copy of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western scores. Thankfully, most of the fight scenes have no music at all.
All in all, this is an above-average entry in the SEOD series. Recommended for all, but highly recommended for those who are already fans of the son of black mass.