Friday, 3 February 2012

Sleepy Eyes of Death 1: The Chinese Jade

Jade In China

Sleepy Eyes of Death 1: The Chinese Jade
aka Nemuri Kyoshiro 1: Sappocho Japan 1963
Directed by Tokuzô Tanaka
Anime Eigo Region 1

Okay, so Sleepy Eyes of Death is Japanese samurai character taken from a popular series of novels written by Renzaburô Shibata, some of which were originally published in serialised form like the old US pulps. The novels and short stories were so popular that already, in the 50s and not long after the stories first started appearing, a series of films were made by the famous Toho Studios which starred Koji Tsuruta as the main character, although that particular series only lasted for three movies before being cancelled, from 1956 to 1958.

However, Daiei Studios started off their own film series based on this character starting in 1963 with this one, The Chinese Jade and starring Ichikawa Raizo as Nemuri Kyoshiro for the first twelve films. Ichikawa Raizo was thought of as the Japanese James Dean but after dying at an appallingly early age, halfway through making the twelfth installment in the series in 1969 (he had to be replaced by a stand in for some of the shots), the appeal and high box office take of the series seemed to die with him. He was replaced by another actor for just two more installments and, from what I understand, Daiei Studios went bankrupt a couple of years after their young star's death.

A further series of four related TV movies were made about the character from 1989 to 1998, but I really don’t know enough about these to elaborate if these were any good.

This is my first exposure to the character right here with this first movie in the Ichikawa Raizo series as the label Anime Eigo, who are a really good US label for crisp and clear transfers of samurai movies with a reputation for thorough subtitling, have released the first 8 films in the series so far in two boxed editions. I’m well looking forward to wading into the rest of these in the coming weeks. I especially like the warning to potential viewers on the back of the box... “WARNING: Contains violence, nudity and nihilism.” The ronin* anti-hero of these films is, in fact, a self proclaimed nihilist... and he won’t be letting you forget that in a hurry, if this first movie in the series is anything to judge by.

The Chinese Jade starts off really well with the title character Nemuri Kyoshiro, The Sleepy Eyes of Death, walking in the night and being attacked by ninjas throwing shurikens at him which embed in the wall behind and let out fizzing, bright colours as fireworks attached to them go off. A colourful entrance which gives a nod to the bright lighting scheme later in the movie but which also demonstrates, as it is shown all the way through the film, that these must be the lamest ninjas in cinema history. I mean, c’mon! What group of ninjas herald their approach with brightly lit, sparkly weapons, all of which fail to hit “our hero” even though he’s not even trying to dodge them? Nemuri Kyoshiro further demonstrates how rubbish these particular ninjas are by, after giving them fair warning to not make him draw his sword, cutting all but one of them down with ease.

It soon becomes clear that, while Nemuri Kyoshiro usually hangs out in his “nest”, he also, as in this film, spends time living with various brothel girls who have all fallen for his charms. He makes his home with prostitutes and a loyal pickpocket who is kinda, it seems to me from this first one, being set up as his comic-relief side-kick. Affer a short while he becomes embroiled in a plot between two rival clans to gain possession of the stolen Chinese Jade statuette which contains a sensitive piece of paper which means the end of one of the clan's yearly stipend if it falls into the wrong hands.

Fans of the original Baby Cart (aka Lone Wolf and Cub) series of films from the next decade will recognise Ogami Itto himself, Tomisaburô Wakayama (credited here as Jyo Kenzaburo) playing the primary “heavy” who, with his bald head, looks like nothing less than a live action equivalent of The Hood from the original Thunderbirds TV show. Seriously, you’ll just be waiting for the guys eyes to light up!. He uses no weapons in battle, only his hand to hand combat skills which (obviously) allows him to be able to catch swords aimed at him in mid flight and remove them from his opponents hands before hitting them so hard that his punch sends them to their death, blood dribbling from their mouths. Hilarious!

The violence to gore ratio is interesting in this one because, although this director was used to directing some of the Zatoichi movies and then, later, some of the Lone Wolf and Cub TV show episodes, there is very little blood on screen here. We are about a year after the release of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo sequel Sanjuro, where the first noted instance of a spurting geyser of blood in relation to a samurai sword cut occurred in Japanese cinema. It’s not quite caught on in this movie but I’m sure that some of the later entries into this series of films will up the ante and feature all manner of highly inappropriate but lively and fun blood effects... just like the Zatoichi series of films did by the end of their run with Shintarô Katsu.

So yeah, there’s a bit of action in here, not least of which is continual “lame-ninja ass kicking” but the bold compositions of the shots and the way in which the camera holds and pans on those is what makes the film interesting. Striking diagonal plains split into three, for example, and the constant projection of depth in the shots by masking areas out with various supports and screens make for some stunning environments... not least of which is one of the villains' “under-river” lair (it's not exactly Ken Adam but it could have been a contender) which is lit with some beautiful and almost psychedelic colour schemes pitching great areas of green up against the odd patch of purple etc. This is the kind of stuff which just about predates the proliferation of these kinds of colour schemes in various giallo movies at the end of the decade and which may, or may not, have been influenced by Mario Bava’s early “credited” directing work. It’s powerful stuff and the lighting schemes employed in these kinds of movies are the things that will keep me coming back to these kinds of films in the future.

The film ends with Nemuri Kyoshiro, naturally, saving the day but the end sequences are quite restrained in that, instead of meeting a bloody death at the hands of the Sleepy Eyes Of Death’s “Full Moon Cut Technique”, one of the primary villains instead is beaten in combat and agrees to keep out of this particular affair in future... which makes me wonder if this was not directly inspired by a story from one of the novels as it’s not a traditional cinematic ending for this kind of movie... or maybe I’m looking at it from jaded Gaijin's eyes. I do know that the character will return in at least one more film in the series so I’m guessing this is taken directly from one of the books.

The only thing I would note as a particularly annoying element of the movie is the musical score by Taichirô Kosugi which, while occasionally wandering into the more appropriate realms of something Masaru Satô might score for a similar kind of movie, with a strong percussion and fast tempo, is actually a real hotchpotch of different styles, the most infuriatingly distracting of which is a slow sub-par, romantic Hollywood melodrama of the 50 theme which kinda grates against the incidents on screen and does nothing to enhance the mood of the imagery. Not a great, or in any way very consistent score, I must say.

Either way, if you’re into your chambera** and you enjoy the likes of the Zatoichi, Hanzo The Razor, Ogami Itto and Lady Snowblood series', then this one is probably something you should check out too. There’s a little less bloodletting in this one, but I suspect that will pick up later in the series. The character is thinly sketched also, with little of his past or explanation of his current position to be gleaned from the movie in anything more than half hinted fragments. That should hopefully get taken care of more as the series progresses, methinks.

*A ronin is the term for a masterless samurai.

** Chambara (also chanbara) is the Japanese term for sword
fighting movies and the term is often associated with samurai movies.

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