It’s good to know AnimEigo is still cranking out classic samurai films and collections, and their latest box-set, Sleepy Eyes of Death Collector’s Edition Vol. 2, looks to continue their legacy. As with the original set that was released a few years back, this second 4-DVD collection of films in the Sleepy Eyes of Death series originally based on the Nemuri Kyoshirō series of novels by Renzaburo Shibata, the series stars Raizo Ichikawa (considered as the James Dean of Japan) as the infamous samurai Kyoshiro Nemuri, the sleepy-eyed, outlaw swordsman who always seems to make enemies from helping or hurting others.
The Sleepy Eyes series spanned an incredible 12 films (and more if you include the made-for-television ones), with this second collection featuring films 5 – 8, which I’ve broken down individually below for your fast and easy reading pleasure:
Sleepy Eyes of Death 5: Sword of Fire (1965) When Kyoshiro, in a moment of weakness, saves the life of a woman being attacked on the road, he quickly finds himself entangled in a conspiracy involving a corrupt chamberlain, a wily merchant, the survivors of a pirate gang, and a missing treasure trove.
Sleepy Eyes of Death 6: Sword of Satan (1965) A little boy who just wants to be a carpenter is at the center of a plot that might topple or save a mighty Clan, and while the swords of some angry samurai may not cause Kyoshiro much trouble, the deadly wiles of two women may be more difficult to survive!
Sleepy Eyes of Death 7: The Mask of the Princess (1966) The sadist Princess Kiku returns, and this time she’s got a squad of Ninja to do her dirty work. And after what Kyoshiro did to her the last time they met, this time she wants him to suffer badly before he dies.
Sleepy Eyes of Death 8: Sword of Villainy (1966) To avenge the death of their master, who launched an uprising to help the poor, his students hatch a plot to burn down Edo Castle when all the high officials are inside. To save hundreds of thousands of people who live near the castle, Kyoshiro finds himself helping the government he despises.
Full disclosure: this is my first experience with the series. Even though one of the films contains a character from one of the earlier films, all can be enjoyed as stand alone entertainment. The basic plot of the series follows Kyoshiro Nemuri as a red-headed ronin feared by everyone for his famous deadly technique, the Full Moon Cut. He wanders from place to place, only to find himself caught up in some kind of intrigue revolving around the ruling families during that period. The action starts off slow in this series of films with Sword of Fire. However, starting with the next film, Sword of Satan, the films become bloodier, more violent, and with a greater concentration and focus on action.
I thought it was pretty cool when I found out two of the films in this set (Sword of Fire and Sword of Villainy) were directed by Kenji Misumi, whom is best known for directing many of the best films in the original Zatoichi series, as well as the Lone Wolf and Cub films that eventually became edited into Shogun Assassin. Better yet, this set also marks the first time The Mask of the Princess and Sword of Villainy films have been made available here in the states.
Some of the things I noticed that made these films stand out from most samurai movies, is that Kyoshiro Nemuri is kind of unusual as a ronin, with his outsider status confirmed by being the biracial son of a European missionary turned apostate. Even though Nemuri does not identify himself as Christian, and keep in mind that the films take place when being Christian in Japan was illegal, the films occasionally have references or scenes revolving around Christianity or more luridly, Black Masses. Another note is how the series also includes a scene or two of sexy eye candy that would have been quite racy for American audiences back in the mid sixties. Not that I’m complaining…
The transfers of the DVD’s are great, and help show off the often impressive cinematography. As usual for AnimEigo, they included some nice options for the English subtitles, such as color or white text, as well as with or without cultural-historical annotations, etc. The mono Japanese audio is spot-on as well. The special features include fully translated trailers which are also 16:9 enhanced widescreen, along with image galleries and program liner notes, as well as a Raizo Ichikawa biography.
Sleepy Eyes of Death Collector’s Edition Vol. 2, AnimEigo’s second 4-DVD collection of films from the popular Japanese samurai drama, is worth checking out for the anti-hero antics of the legendary Kyoshiro Nemuri alone. It’s a lot of fun to watch him go from being selfish, only helping those if it suits his purposes, to being selfless and helping those in need. There’s four digitally-remastered films here (5 – 8), all featuring the usual high-quality picture and audio treatment AnimEigo is famous for, as well as a host of fascinating trivia and culture facts about star Nemuri’s legacy. An absolute must-have for fans of classic Japanese samurai cinema, or even those looking to complete the saga in style, which should happen when the final four films are released in the upcoming third volume.
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