The Sleepy Eyes of Death (Japanese title: Nemuri Kyoshiro, or Sleepy Kyoshiro) series is all about style over substance. Like many long-running Japanese series from the 60s, the films have as much originality of plot and story as an episode of Voltron. They rely on samurai tropes and repetitious, familiar elements to entertain the audience. And just as Voltron waits until the last second to form Blazing Sword (which always annoyed me as a kid–why didn’t Voltron just form the blazing sword first, why waste all that time with the useless attacks?), you can be sure that every single film in the 12-volume Sleepy Eyes of Death series will end with Ichikawa Raizo showing you the flat of his sword, then luring his opponent into death with the near-mystical Full Moon Cut.
Animeigo’s long-awaited release of the final four films in the Sleepy Eyes of Death series shows why style over substance can be a-okay, so long as it’s a sexy, nihilistic style. With these films, you finally get an answer to “What if an entire movie was like the opening credits to a James Bond flick?” The series progressed further and further into the psychedelic and surreal. By the time these four were made they are pure cinematic style—split screens, outrageous use of color, silent, poetic compositions intercut with grotesque violence; these are the images that Quentin Tarantino slices apart to make his patchwork-quilt films like Kill Bill.
And the lead character Nemuri Kyoshiro (Ichikawa Raizo) is not a nice guy. I know the anti-hero is all en vogue, but this guy is a downright villain. He just wanders the land being cool, and is constantly drug into some local ganglord’s plot, or some revenge-seeker’s scheme. Kyoshiro's deadly services can’t be bought for money; the only thing that interests him is taking a girl’s virginity. So you better have a sweet young daughter you can sacrifice to this cold-blooded killer. And 9 times out of 10 (maybe 10 out of 10), anyone who drags Kyoshiro into their feud finds all members on all sides—the innocent and the guilty—lying in pools of their own blood while Kyoshiro strides away alone to some new adventure.
Ichikawa Raizo's death from cancer at the young age of 37 cut short the Nemuri Kyoshiro series. The last film in this set, "Castle Menagerie," was finished with the use of a stand in. Daiei films tried to continue the series with a different actor, Matsukata Hiroki, but by then the sleepy-eyed killer had become permanently associated with Ichikawa, and no substitutes would be accepted.
The four films are:
A Trail of Traps –(1967; 87 minutes)
Director: Ikehiro Kazuo.
Nemuri Kyoshiro is hired (for his usual fee) to protect a gold statue of the Virgin Mary as it is brought to Kyoto. He faces off against the Black Finger Group, a devil-worshiping cult intent on stealing the statue and killing Kyoshiro. Director Ikehiro was amongst the most painterly of directors of the Sleepy Eyes of Death series, and in this film he breaks out all of his funky camera tricks to ensure that Kyoshiro gets a wild ride all the way to Kyoto. And of course, there is the sinister gang of nun assassins to contend with.
Hell is a Woman – (1968; 81 minutes)
Director: Tanaka Tokuzo
You would think that by the 10th film in the series rival lords would know better than to try and use Nemuri Kyoshiro in their schemes for power. Most likely they are going to wind up bleeding in a ditch somewhere instead of sitting on a throne. But the two lords here apparently haven’t watched the other films, and make a fatal mistake.
In the Spider’s Lair– (1968; 80 minutes)
Director: Yasuda Kimiyoshi
Kyoshiro is almost heroic in this one—he goes home to visit his mother’s grave, and finds another child of the Black Mass determined to follow in Kyoshiro’s footsteps. Kyoshiro thinks the boy should settle down and be happy with the beautiful girl who loves him (A suggestion the boy throws back in Kyoshiro’s face: “Could you settle down and lead a happy life?”). Trying to save the boy, Kyoshiro gets drug into a battle with two incestuous, psychotic children of the Shogun. In a surprise to no one, things turn out bad.
Castle Menagerie (1969; 81 minutes)
Director: Ikehiro Kazuo
The final film in the series pits Kyoshiro against that most classic of villains—the evil twin. Another man is raping and killing, calling himself Nemuri Kyoshiro, and this man also appears to know the dreaded Full Moon Cut. Ichikawa Raizo wouldn’t live to see the end of this film, so the Kyoshiro double is used as a stand in. Fortunately, director Ikehiro is back for the last film, giving us beautiful, dreamlike sequences involving Noh masks and people dressed in bird costumes. A nice finale to the series, "Castle Menagerie" is also a stand-out for giving one of the most realistic portrayals of historical ninja ever put on film. Much more realistic than Ichikawa Raizo's other series Shinobi no Mono.
Animeigo’s release of Sleepy Eyes of Death has been phenomenal. Really, I expect nothing less from Animeigo. They do the best subtitles in the business, including a sort of “annotated track” that gives you pop-ups of Japanese terms and customs that explain the action. Admittedly, there isn’t much on the bonus features front—just some production notes and biographies. But ultimately it is the films that matter, not the bonus features. And Animeigo does that part just right.
I am hoping they will put out a complete BluRay boxset of Sleepy Eyes of Death like they did with Lone Wolf and Cub. After that stunning release, I realize I want all samurai series in that format. But just having these films available makes me happy no matter the format. The full run of Sleepy Eyes of Death belongs in the library of any fan of the genre.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.