When I first heard of the Sleepy Eyes of Death (SEOD) movies, it was because of the involvement of Raizo Ichikawa. I’d enjoyed his performances in the Shinobi No Mono pictures and wanted to see more of the man who is often called the James Dean of Japan. When I began watching SEOD, I had no idea what treasures awaited me. The 11th, and penultimate, film in the series, In the Spider’s Lair, is definitely one of those treasures.
This time Nemuri Kyoshiro follows a whim and ends up visiting the village where he was born. He goes to pay his respects at the grave of his mother and learns that there is another, much younger man, who is also the son of a black mass. In his attempts to offer this man a better life, Kyoshiro finds himself in the middle of a horrific conflict. Two siblings, a son and daughter of the shogun, have faked their own deaths and have been exiled due to their sadistic crimes. In this remote region where no one has the power to reign them in, their psychotic behavior is running wild. Our anti-hero doesn’t want to get involved until the insane princess sets her sites on him.
This is definitely one of the most exciting of the SEOD movies. The plot moves along at a rapid pace and there are plenty of fights with opponents that present a genuine threat to Kyoshiro’s full moon cut. These aren’t yakuza he’s dealing with this time. These are members of the shogunate and, as such, they wield the power to do pretty much as they please.
Kimiyoshi Yasuda, a Daiei veteran of many great series including Zatoichi and Daimajin, handles the directing chores this time around with great aplomb. His is usually a deft touch, and such is the case here with the exception of the zoom lens fever that was taking over the world of filmmaking in 1968. Some of the blame must fall at the feet of cinematographer Senkichiro Takeda, but it was ultimately up to Yasuda to decide how much to use this new technology. Use it they do, to stomach churning effect at times, but in the end it has little impact on the story. It just jarred me out of the story whenever it happened and that’s never a good thing.
Ichikawa is at the top of his game here, only months before his untimely death from rectal cancer. Was he in pain during the production of these last features? If he was, you surely can’t tell from his performance. I consider these last movies a gift from Ichikawa since he surely didn’t have to spend his final days shooting. Of course, I wish there were more films in this series and that Ichikawa had lived to a ripe old age, but I’m grateful for the features we do have.
All of Ichikawa’s co-stars are as good at ripping the scenery down as he was. Mako Sanjo really shines as the whacked out princess whose only respite from terrible headaches is the torture and murder of innocents. Also noteworthy is Yusuke Kawazu as the psychotic brother who enjoys shooting poisonous arrows at the peasants he’s corralled in the castle courtyard. The whole film would fall apart if the audience didn’t believe in this brutal pair, but these actors pull it off and become downright frightening.
Also of note is the score by Michiaki Watanabe (here credited as Cheimei Watanabe). Despite the constant zooming from the cinematography department, Watanabe produced a score that serves the story well and avoids any hipster goofiness. In fact, it’s one of the few times that the score in a SEOD movie helps to make the fight scenes even more exciting.
And what fight scenes they are. This film definitely isn’t wall to wall fights, but when they happen, they’re shot and performed in such a way that the action remains clear and the threat to Kyoshiro remains palpable. That isn’t often the case in jidaigeki. It’s easy to forget that and take the exceptional action sequences here for granted. Ichikawa doesn’t appear to use a stunt double and some of the moves he pulls off (presumably without actually hurting anyone) are quite impressive.
Add this one to the short list of the best of the SEOD series. Very highly recommended.