Sunday, June 10, 2018

Sleepy Eyes of Death 8: Sword of Villainy (1966)

Director: Kenji Misumi
Notable Cast: Raizo Ichikawa, Shigeru Amachi, Shiho Fujimura, Kentaro Kudo, Ryuzo Shimada, Yasushi Nagata, Tatsuo Endo, Koichi Uenoyama, Ryosuke Kagawa, Koichi Mizuhara

After the surprisingly successful quality of the previous entry, it was hard not to jump into Sleepy Eyes of Death 8: Sword of Villainy with some high expectations. Not that this series has always been the most consistent with quality overall, but the seventh entry managed to produce a well-executed film with some lofty and off beat gimmicks and this eighth entry was bringing back one of Japan’s finest genre directors to helm it, Kenji Misumi. As Sword of Villainy plays out, it’s almost the polar opposite in style to Mask of the Princess. This film is dense, playing out at times like a socio-political drama more than a gimmickier chanbara film, and it runs the gauntlet in a more artsy, theatrical, and vague manner. It’s no wonder that many fans have mixed feelings on the film. Even when the narrative flow feels flawed or pushes too far in one direction, the film is still carried through by its phenomenal cast and another brilliant round of direction from Misumi. Just make sure that you keep open to what it has to offer.

Children say the darnedest things. 
Over the last few films, the Sleepy Eyes of Death franchise has added some interesting layers to the protagonist Kyoshiro. The last film added a unique kind of pity that he had on a young woman forced into being a prostitute and here in Sword of Villainy they add a few new layers to that characteristic. While it does still stray away from him being the super dark and nihilistic by doing so, it adds interesting elements to his own rules. For this one, his anti-authority stance remains firm, but he refuses to let the villains of the film - a group of terrorists avenging their master - hurt and damage the lives of civilians. On top of that, he also has a few moments where he shows a softness towards women to stand up for them in the face of adversity. Now, like the rest of the films, there is a sense perhaps that his rules are not steadfast and they are fluid to the situation or whim of his own discretion, but nonetheless, Sword of Villainy adds some fascinating new layers to his character that sets the film out from some of the others.

Beyond that, Sword of Villainy throws in the iconic character into the middle of a socio-political thriller concept. Like many of the previous entries, Kyoshiro is somewhat dragged into a scheme by some terrorists to take down the local government which is using a new kind of oil to push their own agendas, no matter how many people they hurt. What makes this film different from the others is that the film has no desire to spell it out for the audience. It’s heavily rooted in political systems and it weaves through a variety of characters in unfurling its narrative, moving at a pace that does not slow for its audience to digest the twists and turns as it goes. The short run time is a problem in this regard as Sword of Villainy doesn’t dive into some of the key elements of its script, like some of the more interesting themes and secondary characters that build up the narrative. It’s a small issue, but one that should be addressed nonetheless.

Full moon cut in a the moonlight. 
Fortunately, the film makes strong use of its villains to balance out the intense script and even delivers a villain who is smart and vicious enough to learn Kyoshiro’s full moon cut swordsmanship style for a fantastic rooftop battle in the third act. Generally speaking, the action in this film is fairly brief, but it is emotionally powered and very effective. That is always how director Misumi works and he truly directs the living hell out of this film powering every moment with a cinematic eye for how it fits into the whole. While the script could have used a bit of expansion to dive into the cornerstones of what it offers, one cannot deny that what is onscreen works and that Misumi brings an artistic quality that makes it work even as it struggles to find the perfect balance.

All in all, Sleepy Eyes of Death 8: Sword of Villainy may not quite reach the fantastic blend of styles that the seventh entry utilized, but it comes damn close. With its dense script and meticulously maneuvering that powers through its socio-political thriller concept, it isn’t out of the realm of understanding that this film gets a mixed reaction from fans. Thanks to a more layered approach to the anti-hero, some brilliant direction from Misumi, and a powerfully developed villain, Sword of Villainy is one of the highlights of the diversity that this series can have even within its established formulas.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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