SWORD OF FIRE (1965), from the Sleepy Eyes of Death (aka Son of the Black Mass) Japanese samurai series, is notable for its assured direction by Kenji Misumi, lively screenplay by Seiji Hoshikawa, and expert swordplay which showcases the lead character's celebrated "Full Moon Cut" technique. Raizo Ichikawa stars as Kyoshiro Nemuri, a wandering red-haired ronin (unemployed samurai) who is the son of a Japanese woman impregnated by a Christian missionary. On his way to Edo (Tokyo), Nemuri encounters a woman, Nui Higaki, engaged in a knife fight with a man. His reluctant act of intervention gets him embroiled in a conspiracy involving the chief retainer of the Todo Clan and his attempt to cover up the theft of treasure from a pirate gang that he was supposed to deliver to the Shogun. Atobe Shogen, the retainer, manipulates various figures, including Nui Higaki, to eliminate the surviving pirates. Nemuri, caught up against his will, seeks to defend himself and, ultimately, the remnants of the pirate gang. In the course of it all, he realizes he'd helped the wrong person to live while refusing to intervene to help the right person.
The key ingredients of the intrigue are not that crucial since we come into the story well after the fact and have little knowledge of the people involved. What's important, however, is the fascinating interplay of a host of scheming characters with shifting motives. Nemuri stands aloof from the action, sizing up all the characters and entering the fray only when forced to. He recalls the title character portrayed by Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa's YOJIMBO (1961), who carefully appraises the situation before deciding to play both ends against the middle. (YOJIMBO was based on an American detective novel, "Red Harvest," by Dashiell Hammett and was, in turn, the basis for Sergio Leone's Italian western, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, made in 1964.) Eventually Nemuri takes sides and reveals an unmistakable sentimental streak in a beautifully conceived line of dialogue near the end of the film. This puts him squarely in the tradition of private eyes like Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe (best seen in the 1946 film, THE BIG SLEEP), who juggled various corrupt parties while maintaining a pragmatic distance which veiled a code of justice awaiting the proper recipient. At the end of this film, Nemuri echoes his private eye predecessors' distaste for authority and cements his loner status by delivering a stinging rebuke to the head of the clan.
While the film is not as bloody or over-the-top as Misumi's later works, most notably the Lone Wolf and Cub/Baby Cart films starring Tomisaburo Wakayama, it has a formal beauty that's less evident in those films. There are long takes, elegant compositions and great attention to the use of color, particularly red (beautifully captured in the stunning letter-boxed transfer available on tape). The swordfights are all efficiently staged for the wide screen with nearly all of the intricate action completed in magnificent single takes. There are plenty of such scenes, but they tend to be short and quick. Most of the suspense is generated by the constant tension and threat of violence in the frequent confrontations between opposing characters.
Without giving anything away, the very last scene of the film (following the incidents cited above) may strike some as cold-blooded, although it will have others laughing with cruel glee. However, it closes the film on a distinct poignant note with its profound sense of lost opportunity and thwarted emotion.
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