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  • 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.
  • This is the fifth entry in the popular Sleepy Eyes of Death series starring Raizo Ichikawa as Kyoshiro Nemuri, Master of the Full-Moon Cut...and my first encounter with these films after having read about them for years. I was not disappointed. "Sword of Fire" is a surprisingly restrained effort from director Kenji Misumi, and that's not a complaint: in fact, this just might be my favorite among the many Misumi films I've seen. (Strangely enough, "Sword of Satan"--the next film in the series--has much more of the bloody, garish ambiance usually associated with Misumi, though it was directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda.) The story is compelling, racing along on greased wheels like the best hard-boiled detective novels, and the sword fights are satisfying if infrequent; the final confrontation, especially, is choreographed to graceful perfection against and within the backdrop of a massive, forbidding pagoda. As Kyoshiro Nemuri, Ichikawa is as dour and tight-lipped as his character's reputation suggests, but Nemuri demonstrates that he's not quite the unprincipled rogue everyone believes him to be. Based on what I've seen so far, this is a high point in the series. If you're a fan of the Zatoichi and Lone Wolf & Cub films, you'll want to own it. (Eight and a half stars.)
  • On the road, Kyoshiro Nemuri meets a knife wielding woman and a man with a sword engaged in mortal combat. After the woman promises that Nemuri can have "anything" he wants, our protagonist disarms the man letting the woman kill him, thus avenging her murdered husband. At least that is what the woman claims, the truth turns out to be more complicated. For his reward, Nemuri wants to spend the night with the woman (chivalry is not Nemuri's strongest virtue). Because of this, and an ill timed meeting with a former pirate in a tavern, Nemuri becomes involved in another adventure involving smugglers , corrupt clan leaders, and devious women (this is the entry that should have been titled Sword of Seduction). Of course, Nemuri plays fair with the innocent bystanders in the story but meets villainy with villainy.

    After the last entry (the series's high point thus far), I was a little disappointed with Sword of Fire. The story uses tropes that have been better used in previous entries. The villains do not stand out (the villainess is certainly no Princess Kiku). The Gothic touches of the last two entries are missing entirely. Most surprisingly considering the director, the action scenes are only fair. Director Kenji Misumi directed most of the original Lone Wolf and Cub films and a handful of the best Zatoichi movies. Misumi's previous entry in the series, Sword of Adventure, featured a thrilling final fight sequence. Yet, Sword of Fire is just not in their company. It is on par with the first Sleepy Eyes of Death, an okay samurai film, worth watching for fans. Viewers not as enamored with the series can probably skip this entry.