Saturday 26 May 2012

Sleepy Eyes of Death 8: Sword Of Villainy

Who Wants To Be A Villain Heir?

Sleepy Eyes of Death 8
aka Nemuri Kyôshirô 8: Burai-ken
Japan 1966
Directed by Kenji Misumi
Anime Eigo Region 1

Series regular Kenji Misumi returns to direct the eighth of the Sleepy Eyes Of Death movies but... it’s a curious beast of a film and I’m not convinced this quite convoluted tale of conspiracy against the government actually started out as a Nemuri Kyôshirô movie in the first place. Everything looks like its been written for something completely different and the main series protagonist has just been slotted in after the fact. I’d like to know more about the production history of this movie and, also, the events which take place on screen as they seem to be inspired by a true incident in Edo period Japan, including a great fire in Edo which I can’t find as taking place anywhere near the main timeline of this picture.

The film opens with slow harpsichords on a soundtrack by none other than the master composer of Japanese film Akira Ifikube (creator of the “voice” of Gojira  aka Godzilla and also the musical scores for many of the Gojira movies... a man known as the John Williams of Japan) and continues on throughout the running time of the movie in a fairly leisurely style in much the manner of the handful of scores he did for another series of successful chambara films which were around at the same time, the Zatoichi series. I think I would be hard pressed, especially after only one viewing, to hear any real difference in his scoring fo those Blind Swordsman movies and this one, to be honest.

The plot begins in a conspiratorial manner as rival factions are after the secrets to the method to distill “stink-water” (a natural oil found in swamps) to make a clean-burning energy.. and not something which is going to be useless and uncommercial in lamps because it gives of a sooty black smoke when burned if incorrectly distilled. This eventually hatches into a plot to destroy the whole of the Edo district in Japan (as it was formerly known before it came to be called Tokyo). It’s also the story of a villain who wants to do this while hiding it as a commercial opportunity to the people he needs to help him while at the same time trying to keep a promise to a little girl (which is the only thing which really gives this particular movie any real heart).

The thing is... it takes maybe a quarter of an hour before Nemuri Kyôshirô actually turns up in the narrative and even then they have to shoehorn him into the plot by making him a “coincidental double” of the dead man who managed to perfect the top secret distillation method to begin with. Nemuri really doesn’t do much in this movie and he seems to be really innefectual in the progression of the plot, too. Sure, he saves a few lives and slaughters a fair few more, but for the majority of the course of the movie, it just seems like the writers are finding ways in which they can have the character interact with a bunch load of other characters who are themselves, in reality, driving the story forward without his help. This really shows up towards the end of the movie where Nemuri falls into a trap and finds himself helpless to come to the rescue as explosions rock a few warehouses and Edo is set on a course to burn down completely. Again, although I know there have been some major fires in Edo, there’s nothing on the books that I can find which match the mid-19th Century kind of dating that this movie has. if you’re a reader with any knowledge of this historical incident, please leave it in the comments section at the bottom of this short review.

Nemuri then gets free at the end in order to deal with the main villain (and the pathos of his unfulfilled promise to the little girl) and to slaughter all his subordinates while the general battle around the convoluted and, I suspect, highly political plot, takes care of everything else.

Because of the lack of a cohesive, Nemuri Kyôshirô led plot, this is actually my least favourite of the Sleepy Eyes Of Death films so far. It is, however, one of the reasons why it is also one of the most interesting... coupled with the typical “lazy Chanbara” style Ifikube scoring and some absolutely stunningly designed frames. There’s some stuff in here where the director chops the single frame up artificially into about 8 sections, for example, so that a range of characters in a room can each have their own sectioned of area of space in relation to everybody else. Stunning stuff.

If you like the Sleepy Eyes Of Death movies then Sword Of Villainy is definitely a must-see, simply because it’s so different in tone and style to the previous seven in the series. If you’re looking for a film to jump onto the series with, though, this certainly isn’t it. I suspect (since I can find no information to either confirm or refute my suspicions) that this movie did not start off life as a Nemuri Kyôshirô movie. I reckon this one was probably being developed as something else and the studio needed another Nemuri Kyôshirô installment quick to keep the impetus going (this must have been quite a succesful film series for the studio). So probably not the best one to start on since it doesn’t really give you a flavour of what the series is really like.

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