I had a hankering for some good, old-fashioned samurai cinema, and with no more Lone Wolf and Cub films left to sate my appetite, I turned to Sleepy Eyes of Death: The Chinese Jade, the first episode in the long-running adventures of Nemuri Kyoshiro, otherwise known as the Son of the Black Mass.
As far as chanbara plots go, this one is fairly standard: our shrewd, cynical protagonist finds himself drawn into a convoluted conspiracy, beset on all sides by ninja assassins, corrupt court officials, and devious smugglers. While it’s certainly satisfying to watch Kyoshiro and his ragtag band of misfits expose the inherent hypocrisy of bushido, the real star of the show is the legendary Tomisaburo Wakayama, here playing Chen Sun, a warrior monk capable of vanquishing a dozen skilled swordsmen with nothing but his bare fists. Like the best Zatoichi antagonists, Chen Sun is an honorable man coerced into serving a nefarious master (character actor Date Saburo in a surprisingly meaty role), and he spends the bulk of his screen time attempting to test his prowess against our hero’s signature technique, the Full Moon Cut. Wakayama’s athleticism and charisma go a long way towards compensating for the movie’s lackluster fight choreography and long stretches of dull exposition.
Ultimately, The Chinese Jade is no Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold or Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons, but it’s still worth viewing at least once—if only because it features one of the most refreshingly creative climactic duels you’re likely to encounter in this particular genre.
[Originally written April 19, 2017.]