STUDIO: Kadokawa Pictures & AnimEigo, Inc.
MSRP: $79.98
RATED: Suggested 18+ (Unrated)
RUNNING TIME: 338 Minutes + Extras
* Info Booklet
* Commentary
* Image Gallery
* Info Maps & Notes
* Bios
* Trailers

The Pitch

Nemuri Kyoshiro is a half-breed son of a Japanese noblewoman raped by a Christian missionary, badass nihilistic ronin. Wandering the countryside with contempt for humanity, Kyoshiro continuously gets wrapped up in surprisingly complex plots and kills a bunch of idiots along the way.

The Humans

Directors: Tokuzo TANAKA (The Chinese Jade), Kenji MISUMI (Sword of Adventure), Kimiyoshi YASUDA (Full Circle Killing), Kazuo IKEHIRO (Sword of Seduction)

Writer: Seiji HOSHIKAWA (screenplays), Renzaburo SHIBATA (original books)

Cast: Raizo ICHIKAWA, Tomisaburo WAKAYAMA, Tamao NAKAMURA, Shiho FUJIMURA, Yoshi KATOO, Taroo MARUI, Saburo DA’TE, Naoko KUBO, Akemi NEGISHI, etc.

The Nutshell

One of the first “Lone Samurai” type film series: highly influential, surprisingly complex, delightfully nihilistic, masterfully made, and wonderfully entertaining.

The Lowdown

If the back of a DVD package states “Warning: Contains Violence, Nudity & Nihilism,” you can probably expect greatness. Being new to the DVD Review Team, I chose two random titles that looked like they would be fun. I figured something from Japan called Sleepy Eyes of Death would be something silly and fun – I was only slightly right. First off, a Collector’s Set VOLUME 1 of four samurai movies is a little daunting, especially for someone whose only real samurai experience is from a few Kurosawa films.

Turns out, the Sleepy Eyes of Death series is awesome. Based on a series of novels by Renzaburo Shibata, the stories follow Nemuri Kyoshiro, a lone samurai (ronin) who simply wanders the Japanese countryside and finds himself wrapped up in complex adventures along the way.

Kyoshiro is the master of the Full-Moon-Cut, a swordplay technique that involves slowly drawing a circle in the air with one’s blade, creating a hallucinatory affect on the opponent and drawing them in to attack, only to be instantly cut down. Kyoshiro is also the bastard-orphan child of a Black Mass involving a demented Spanish Christian missionary and a Japanese woman. He is a master swordsman, a gentleman samurai, incredibly cynical and smooth as hell – no woman, or opponent, can resist him.

Each film is less than 90 minutes long, yet (as I’ve said before) they are surprisingly complex. Sleepy Eyes of Death 1: The Chinese
quickly introduces us to Kyoshiro being ambushed by several ninja. After he easily slices through the bunch of them the movie takes off. The very rich and corrupt Daimyo, Nariyasu Maeda, is in search of a certain Chinese jade statue, and will sacrifice anyone to get it. His adopted daughter, Chisa, plays a spy to hire and entice Kyoshiro to help. Meanwhile, Zeniya is another corrupt Daimyo in search of the elusive Chinese Jade. Chen Sun (played by Lone Wolf and Cub star, Tomisaburo Wakayama) is his partner, a Chinese karate expert – they are also trying to hire Kyoshiro to help them find the statue. Eventually, Kyoshiro learns that the two lords were once partners who had a massive falling out – the Chinese Jade is like the Maltese Falcon, in that what the two men are really seeking is what’s inside. At times rather silly (Kyoshiro has two “sidekicks” – a man and a woman who seem to be functioning retards. Thankfully, they aren’t in the proceeding films), this is the third best in the set, yet still very well made and very entertaining. An awesome, solid introduction.

“I’m supposed to put this where?”
8 out of 10

Sleepy Eyes of Death 2: Sword of Adventure
has Kyoshiro finding himself the trusted bodyguard to the Shogun’s Finance Commissioner. One of the Shogun’s princesses (apparently he has a lot) is a spoiled brat and is wasting money, causing taxes to rise and the division of wealth to grow. The Finance Commissioner, Asahina Iori, basically says, “let’s cut her off,” so she gets real bitchy and hires a bunch of assassins to kill him. Kyoshiro, again reluctantly wrapped up in the situation, becomes Asahina’s bodyguard and the object of the assassins’ and the princess’ desires. More in line with what’s to come, Sword of Adventure is funny at times, but isn’t as silly as The Chinese Jade, and more action packed.

“Leave me alone, mom!”

8.5 out of 10

Sleepy Eyes of Death 3: Full Circle Killing
is my least favorite in the package. Another brat child of the Shogun, this time an illegitimate son, Takayuki, who thinks himself heir to the throne, is causing unrest. Kyoshiro is again entangled in the affairs of strangers after Takayuki murders a villager. Forced with the task of making the villagers trust him, and avoiding getting killed by Takayuki’s guards, Kyoshiro discovers the plot of an evil woman who is using her children to gain power for herself. Kyoshiro is a lady’s man, as I’ve mentioned before, yet there is a situation in Full Circle Killing that left me confused. Kyoshiro essentially rapes a young woman in order to “teach her a lesson,” and even though by the end of the film we are kinda-sorta lead to believe she may have wanted it – it’s never made clear, and she eventually kills herself anyway, which leads me to believe it was unwanted. Apparently, this is common in Japanese folklore, but it left me cold. It’s the main reason, honestly, that I finished Full Circle Killing with distaste. Thankfully, we complete this package with Sword of Seduction.

Another (dis)satisfied minion.

7 out of 10

Sleepy Eyes of Death 4: Sword of Seduction
is the best of the package, and is ultimately what has left me excited to see more of Kyoshiro’s adventures. Apparently, I’m not the only one who was left cold after the last film – according to my research, the studio lost money on Full Circle Killing, and needed to freshen up the series. They brought in Kazuo Ikehiro, and hell yes. Furthering the completeness and richness of the time period in which the Sleepy Eyes of Death series takes place, Sword of Seduction deals with themes of opium smuggling and addiction, (more) government corruption, Chinese-Japanese relations, border control, and Christian disgust – the films take place in the early to mid 1800s when Christianity was illegal in Japan, and Sword of Seduction plays up this fact to full effect. By the end of the film, I had as much disdain for the miserable Spanish Christian missionaries as Kyoshiro. In 80 minutes, Sword of Seduction has the most complex plot of the four films featured, and is the most intriguing and entertaining. After all is said and done, it’s amazing they fit in so much, in such a short amount of time.  A new effect was added to enhance Kyoshiro’s hallucinatory Full-Moon-Cut, and at first I was like whaaaaat, but then I grew to love it.

Also, a humorous little touch, and more of the greatness of Sword of Seduction, is to Chen Sun, who shows up again as Kyoshiro’s Chinese nemesis. This time he’s sporting an American Greaser/Elvis hair-do. My assumption is that it’s a comment on Japan’s unrest with the Chinese-American relations of the time. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s when Japan had opened their borders to the outside world, and they disapproved of China’s affiliation with the West. Having their nationalist hero’s Chinese enemy wear a ridiculous Elvis ‘do is a hilarious and subtle cherry on the sundae.

9 out of 10

These four Sleepy Eyes of Death films are incredibly intelligent and entertaining little Japanese nationalist samurai films that really leave an impression. Nemuri Kyoshiro is a badass nihilist Japanese anti-hero. And I’m left wanting more.
The Package
I can only assume previous American releases of these films weren’t that great. These transfers are beautiful, though. For the most part, the contrast is very well balanced and the sound is great. Each DVD has the option for Yellow or White subtitles, and furthermore the subtitle choices are complete with here-and-there footnotes, or dialogue only. The Interactive Maps of Japan and Program Notes are a nice touch – educational info that enhances the viewing of each film. The Bio notes, image galleries and trailers round out each disc, completing a very nice “collector’s set.”

9 out of 10

8.3 out of 10