“Sleepy Eyes of Death 1: The Chinese Jade” – A.J. Hakari

Don’t force me to draw my blade…Once I draw, you’re all dead men.

With these words, the audience is introduced to an antihero eager to warm your heart — right before he thrusts his blade through it. The samurai genre is no stranger to the noble hero; Ogami Itto, Zatoichi, and countless others live a scallywag’s life but ensure justice is served throughout their travels. But those who prefer their good guy with a great deal of bite need look no further than Japan’s Sleepy Eyes of Death series. These films boast a protagonist for whom the sword is a source of endless amusement, an attitude his first outing, The Chinese Jade, expresses with gleefully subversive fervor.

The rather brazen lad who cuts down a handful of ninja in the opening minutes goes by the name of Nemuri Kyoshiro (Raizo Ichikawa). A young man who takes his devil may care disposition to the extreme, Kyoshiro opts to wander through life and observe the dramas others entangle themselves in. He also happens to be a swordsman of unparalleled talent, the main reason why the nefarious Lord Maeda (Sonosuke Sawamura) wants to enlist him for a gig. Maeda is eager to get his grubby paws on a jade Buddha statue in the possession of rival Gohei Zeniya (Saburo Date). The trouble is that Zeniya has also called upon Kyoshiro’s skills, but our boy isn’t about to take sides. Kyoshiro instead watches as both factions tear one another apart, unsheathing his blade and performing the notorious Full-Moon Cut only when his own life is in peril.

If there were any film that deserved to be called a “samurai noir,” it’s The Chinese Jade. Never mind that the very structure has borrowed liberally from The Maltese Falcon, right down to the MacGuffin everyone and their mother is hunting for. The key element here is Kyoshiro himself, a man even less interested in justice than Sam Spade. He’s the ultimate cynic, a ronin looking out only for himself and no one else. Whatever chambara shenanigans he gets wrapped up in, it’s all for his own benefit. Yet like a lot of Bogie’s signature roles, Kyoshiro endears himself in spite of his more bastardly qualities. The story helps in how it comes to test his misanthropic meddle, by way of troubled young maiden Chisa (Tamao Nakamura). Evenly matched with Kyoshiro in the damaged goods department, she becomes hopelessly devoted to the swordsman, her affection gradually chipping away at his complacency and even inspiring him to grow a conscience.

But when he’s not reluctantly searching what little soul he has left, Kyoshiro occupies most of his time with being a badass among badasses. The “greatest ronin ever” tag is no joke, as he proves consistently that he knows his way around a blade. The Chinese Jade isn’t as overtly violent as, say, the Lone Wolf and Cub movies, but that’s because they have different agendas. The latter comes from the over-the-top world of comics, while the Sleepy Eyes films emphasize swiftness and subtlety. When Kyoshiro dispatches the latest round of challengers, he does so inhumanly fast and with lethal precision. Ichikawa’s performance captures the character’s self-assurance to a tee, which works even better if you’ve seen him as the jingoistic ninja in Shinobi No Mono. The supporting cast is uniformly solid, tinged with many faces familiar to samurai buffs; Date and Sawamura (they of many Zatoichi movies) live it up as the baddies, and the lone wolf himself, Tombisaburo Wakayama, appears as one monk you do not want to mess with.

The Chinese Jade was but the first in a series of 12 pictures starring Ichikawa, an acting legend in the making before he unfortunately passed early in his career. The Sleepy Eyes series is a true indication of the man’s talent, of his refusal to play a straight hero and instead present viewers with someone a little off-kilter. Ichikawa’s work paid off, as due to its refreshing pessimism and nihilistic hero, The Chinese Jade isn’t your sensei’s samurai flick.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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